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do not swim

Swimming was banned at bathing spots across Ireland for over 350 days this year

Noteworthy analysis of EPA data shows that “do not swim” notices are an all too common occurrence at beaches across the country.

SWIMMING WAS BANNED at bathing spots across Ireland this year for a combined total of over 350 days, a Noteworthy analysis shows.

Local authorities are responsible for monitoring water quality for the entire bathing season that runs from 1 June – 15 September. Swimming prohibitions are for bathing spots, not for the entire beach itself that remains open to the public.

An examination of data from the EPA and the website that provides information on water quality shows that authorities also erected ‘advice against bathing’ notices – a recommendation rather than a ban – for a total of just over 50 days this year. 

During the period of 2017 and 2020, prohibited swimming notices were erected at bathing spots for a total of just under 1,200 days, according to EPA data analysed by Noteworthy. Advisory notices were erected for over 120 days in total over this period. 

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to find out if swimming off Ireland’s coast is under threat from pollution. Support this project here.

The data shows that there were also 135 short-term pollution warnings in 2020. These notices are precautionary and issued where there is a clearly identifiable cause of microbiological contamination expected to last less than 72 hours, such as heavy rainfall. 

If samples indicate high enough pollution levels, then an advisory or do not swim notice is issued, as occurred on several occasions in 2020 according to the EPA data analysed.

Swimming at several beaches in Co Clare was temporarily banned in early August, for example, due to increased bacterial levels identified in the water following heavy rainfall. The council said that it is not aware of any other pollution incidents in the 2020 season.

Ireland in the slow lane

Waters samples are tested for E coli and Intestinal Enterococci and results reported to the EPA that provides bathing water classifications at the end of the year based on water quality results over the previous four bathing seasons. 

Bathing water can receive a classification of excellent, good, sufficient or poor. Bathing water classified as poor means there is a risk of microbiological pollution which could cause illnesses like skin rashes or gastric upset. 

According to the latest EPA bathing water report, the watchdog found that 95% of bathing waters (140 of 147) met or exceeded the minimum required standard in 2019, with waters at just five beaches found to be poor.

The equivalent report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows, however, that we are lagging behind the EU average for sites that have an ‘excellent’ standard. Our average for 2019 was 72.8% compared to the EU average of 84.8%. In addition, the EEA found that Ireland had the third highest share of bathing waters classified as ‘poor’ last year. 

The beaches with the poor rating were Merrion Strand and Portrane (the Brook) Beach in Co Dublin, together with two sites in Co Galway, Ballyloughane Beach and Clifden Beach, where swimming was entirely prohibited for the 2020 bathing season.

A high res version of this table can be found here.

Trouble spots

The main issue at Clifden Beach was a storm water overflow at the Clifden wastewater treatment plant. Other potential sources of pollution include discharges from septic tanks in the area, according to the EPA. 

Irish Water has undertaken rehabilitation works on the Clifden sewer network and the wastewater treatment plant and Galway County Council is following up on issues identified with septic tanks in the area.

Swimming was prohibited at Merrion Strand as it was declassified as a bathing location this year after receiving a poor rating for the past five years. According to EPA data, samples pointed to high levels of Intestinal Enterococci in various samples taken since 2017, including during two inspections this summer.  

Dublin City Council expects it to receive a poor classification again this year. According to the EPA, one of the main problems at Merrion Strand is the impact from two polluted streams – Elm Park and Trimleston – which flow onto the beach. 

Both streams are polluted by misconnections where domestic plumbing goes into the wrong pipe and goes directly into the stream, as well as leaks, spills and overflows from wastewater collection systems, the EPA said. 

A new task force was set up by Dublin City Council in 2019 to specifically focus on improving bathing water quality at Merrion Strand, as well as Sandymount Strand where swimming was prohibited for over 80 days since 2017, including almost 30 days this year. 

Dublin City Council is also working with Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council and Irish Water to address pollution sources related to the wastewater network including misconnections, combined sewer overflows and pumping station overflows.

If this map does not work for you, click here for an interactive version.

Lough Ennell

The fifth bathing spot with poor status is Lilliput Lough Ennell in Co Westmeath. It was classified as poor in 2018 and 2019, with high pollution levels also seen in previous years. 

Since 2017, bathing has been prohibited for over 400 days at Lilliput Lough Ennell, including long periods outside of the official bathing season, according to EPA data. 

Bathing was prohibited, for example, between the end of July 2019 all the way through to late January this year. A bathing restriction was also in place for the 2020 bathing water season. 

The main source of pollution, according to the EPA, comes from agriculture, with septic tank discharges and birds also potential, but less likely, sources.

According to the data analysed by Noteworthy, several bathing water samples taken during the 2018 and 2019 season detected high levels of E. Coli in the bathing water. 

According to the EPA, Westmeath County Council carried out extensive investigations in 2019 and is working with the Local Authorities Waters Programme to identify the causes of pollution in a nearby stream thought to be affecting the water quality of the lake.

Cause of the problems 

Experts have identified persistent problems due to leaks and overflows from wastewater systems, as well as overflowing sewers and pump stations during rainfall and storm events as key concerns predicted to get worse due to climate change. 

Based on local authority investigations into the likely causes of pollution incidents, the EPA estimates that urban wastewater accounted for 54% of incidents in 2019, followed by pollution from agriculture (18%), septic tanks (12%), and run-off from urban areas (10%).

According to Dublin City Council, for example, there were several temporary bathing water prohibitions at Dollymount Strand in 2020 due to overflow from Ringsend.

The EPA has found that treatment at 19 large urban areas that generate more than half of Ireland’s sewage failed mandatory EU treatment standards last year. 

Irish Water advised the EPA of 55 occasions during 2018 when it released sewage through emergency overflows on its collection systems. 

The EPA has said that: “delays and uncertainty in Irish Water’s delivery of critical improvements to infrastructure are prolonging risks to the environment and public health”. 

In a statement last month following the release of the EPA’s annual Urban Wastewater Treatment Report, Irish Water said that “significant progress has been made to date by Irish Water with the delivery of critical wastewater projects around the country”. 

It said that there has been an estimated 50% reduction in the amount of untreated and inadequately treated wastewater that was being discharged to our rivers, lakes and the sea since 2014. It also stressed that Irish Water has recently upgraded or built wastewater treatment plants at 13 locations. 


Is swimming off Ireland’s coast under threat from pollution?

The Noteworthy team want to identify towns and villages with the worst bathing water across the country and examine the key causes and impact on public health, tourism, and water-based businesses.

Here’s how to help support this proposed investigation>

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