The government has announced that 27 new open water swimming sites in England will be officially designated as bathing waters and the quality of the water will be subject to regular monitoring. The sites were selected following a public consultation, and the majority of them are on rivers.

In a press release, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs explained that there are now 451 official bathing waters across the country, including Church Cliff Beach in Dorset, Derwent Water in Cumbria, the River Dart in Devon and the River Nidd in North Yorkshire.

The government has also pledged to launch a consultation on proposals to reform the Bathing Water Regulations for England, in an effort to drive up the quality of water. The UK’s rivers, lakes, reservoirs and coastal waters are regularly used by open water swimmers for recreational purposes and also for competitions and events such as triathlons. 

However, in recent years concerns have been raised about the quality and safety of the water at some bathing sites, particularly rivers and coastal areas. Many of these sites have been found to have poor water quality, with samples containing high levels of untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, and chemical or industrial pollution.

Designated bathing sites are tested by the Environment Agency between mid May and the end of September to check if they are safe to swim in. Samples are collected and processed within 24 hours by a team of scientists at a laboratory near Exeter. 

Speaking to BBC News, Jonathan Porter, a microbiologist at the Environment Agency, explained: "We're looking for two different types of bacteria, e. coli and intestinal enterococci. Those are used to indicate the possible presence of faecal material - poo - in the water, which could have come from many different sources, humans, farm animals, birds, or dogs."

Anyone who is intending to go wild swimming is strongly advised to look up the results of the tests, which are published on the EA’s Swimfo Website. Sites are rated from Poor to Excellent, with swimmers advised not to enter any water with the lowest quality ratings. If a site is rated Poor for five years in a row, it loses its official designation for bathing.

In theory, the rating system is intended to both warn swimmers of health hazards and drive up the quality of the water. If a site is found to be substandard, the local authority, the water company and the EA are obliged to tackle the source of the problem and improve the water quality. 

However, in reality campaigners argue that too often, inadequate action is taken and too many designated sites in the UK suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution. 

In a statement, Water Minister Robbie Moore said: “The value our bathing waters bring to local communities is incredibly valuable – providing social, physical and positive health and wellbeing benefits to people around the country – and I am pleased to have approved a further 27 new bathing water sites for this year.”

“These popular swimming spots will now undergo regular monitoring to ensure bathers have up-to-date information on the quality of the water and enable action to be taken if minimum standards aren’t being met. I am fully committed to seeing the quality of our coastal waters, rivers and lakes rise further for the benefit of the environment and everyone who uses them.”

Environment Agency Chair Alan Lovell said: “The importance of England’s bathing waters for residents and visitors alike cannot be understated, which is why the Environment Agency provides rigorous testing to ensure that bathers can make informed decisions before swimming in one of our 451 sites.”

“Overall bathing water quality has improved massively over the last decade due to targeted and robust regulation from the Environment Agency, and the good work carried out by partners and local groups. Last year, 96% of sites met minimum standards, up from just 76% in 2010 – and despite stricter standards being introduced in 2015.”

“We know that improvements can take time and investment from the water industry, farmers and local communities, but where the investment is made, standards can improve.”

The government is also considering expanding the definition of bathing sites to include other water users such as paddleboarders, kayakers, and rowers. 

Sarah A