Bathing Waters in Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly

Closes 1 Jan 2027

Opened 14 May 2024

Overview

Bathing Waters in Devon, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly

Frequently asked questions

Which public bodies are responsible for bathing waters and how are responsibilities shared?

Classification and Monitoring

 

Notifying the Public

 

Water Quality information

 

Which public bodies are responsible for bathing waters and how are responsibilities shared?

The Bathing Water Regulations (2013) set out the responsibilities of public bodies for each aspect of bathing water management:

  • The Secretary of State (Defra) is responsible for designating and de-designating bathing waters, providing guidance on how to implement the Regulations, preparing reports on bathing water seasons, and acting as an enforcer when local authorities fail to meet their duties.
  • The Environment Agency (EA) is responsible for monitoring, assessing and classifying bathing waters and providing bathing water profiles, as well as passing on information on bathing waters to public. The EA also has the responsibility to manage the quality of the water to meet the Regulations’ standards through pollution prevention measures and to notify bathers via Swimfo of pollution incidents and warnings of Short Term Pollution.
  • Local Authorities are responsible for signage at bathing waters and the health of those who bathe there. They are also responsible for passing on information about pollution incidents at bathing waters to the public and to prevent people’s exposure to them.
  • Finally, it’s the responsibility of water companies to inform the EA and Local Authorities of any pollution incidents that take place.

How are Bathing Waters classified?

  • The Environment Agency is required to adhere to the monitoring guidelines outlined in the Bathing Water Regulations. These regulations specify a fixed bathing water season, which runs from 15th May to 30th September.
  • Monitoring is required to take place within these dates, except for the first sample of the season, which must be taken just before the season starts.
  • During the bathing season each year, we take between ten and twenty water samples at each of England's designated bathing waters.
  • In each sample, we test for bacteria that indicate whether faecal matter is present in the water. These are known as faecal indicator organisms (FIOs), and the specific ones we test for are E. coli and Intestinal enterococci.
  • The monitoring results are used to produce a classification scheme, which is set out within the regulations. Each season's samples are combined with up to four years' worth of data from previous seasons to give a bathing water its annual classification.
  • The classifications provide a long-term assessment of water quality over a four-year period. This information is useful for comparing water quality between bathing waters and for making decisions regarding long-term pollution reduction measures.
  • There are four classifications available: Excellent, Good, Sufficient, or Poor. For more information on these classifications, please refer to Bathing Water Quality (Bathing water quality glossary (data.gov.uk)).
  • These standards come from guidelines produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and are based on up to date science. They have been adopted by many countries through the EU Bathing Water Directive which the Regulations are based on. 
  • Only designated bathing waters are monitored and classified. While an annual classification provides an overall assessment of water quality, it does not give bathers the real-time information of the risk at any given time.
  • Monitoring results can be discounted for samples taken at times of confirmed temporary pollution, when this information is provided by the Environment Agency on Swimfo, and beach managers have provided against bathing by local signage. 

How are bathing waters designated?

  • Local authorities, groups, and individuals have the opportunity to apply for the designation of bathing sites under the Bathing Water Regulations to safeguard the health of bathers visiting popular beaches and inland waters. To encourage applications, Defra writes to the Chief Executive of every local authority in England and other stakeholders, such as swimming associations.
  • The decision to designate a site considers the availability of facilities that promote and support bathing, including lifeguarding, first aid facilities, public toilets, shops, and cafes. Local authorities and stakeholders are best placed to identify popular bathing areas suitable for designation.
  • The quality of the water is not a factor when considering applications for designation or de-designation.
  • Bathing water designation allows the Environment Agency to assess the necessary actions required to meet the standards set by the Bathing Water Regulations.
  • Rivers and other open water locations that are not designated as bathing waters are managed to protect fish and wildlife, not people. Therefore, health risks associated with using these locations may be higher than at designated bathing waters.
  • For those interested in applying for designation, information is available here: Designate a bathing water: guidance on how to apply - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

How many bathing waters are there in Devon and Cornwall?

  • As of 2024 there are currently 155 bathing waters, with a mixture of coastal and transitional (estuarine) bathing waters. We currently do not have any designated inland (freshwater) bathing waters in Devon and Cornwall.

How can I find out the classification of my bathing water?
Where can I find bathing water monitoring data?

  • Swimfo is a website that provides information about coastal and inland bathing waters. You can search for a designated bathing water by its name or location on Swimfo. Each profile contains information about bathing water quality, site details, and our current understanding of pollution sources that can affect bathing waters. Swimfo provides up-to-date information on the water quality of many of our bathing beaches, helping you choose when and where to swim.
  • You can find full bathing water quality dataset through bathing water data platform: Bathing waters data

Swimfo: What information can I access through the Swimfo website?

  • Swimfo is the Environment Agency’s online tool for sharing designated bathing water information. Swimfo allows you to look up details of a designated bathing water by name or location. Each individual profile holds information about the bathing water quality, site details and further information on our current understanding of the pollution sources that can affect bathing waters and the work that has been carried out to tackle these.  
  • The Swimfo platform contains important information about pollution risk forecasts and pollution incidents. We provide a year-round pollution incident service and daily bathing water pollution risk forecasts for over 60 bathing waters during the bathing season in Devon & Cornwall.

Why does the EA not monitor my beach or river (bacteria monitoring)?

  • If your beach or river of interest is not included on Swimfo, then it is not an official designated bathing water. The Environment Agency can only monitor and classify designated bathing waters. Any local authority, groups, or individual can apply to have a bathing water designated. See response to question ‘How are bathing waters designated?’ to find out more.

Why don’t we monitor bathing waters in the winter?

  • The Environment Agency follow the monitoring requirements set out in the Bathing Water Regulations. These regulations specify a fixed bathing water season, which runs from 15th May to 30th September.
  • Monitoring is required to take place within these dates, except for the first sample of the season, which must be taken just before the season starts.
  • Going beyond the statutory monitoring requirements for a fixed season as set out in the Regulations is not within the Environment Agency’s remit and would require changing policy and/or legislation by Defra.

How does the EA notify the public about short term pollution risk?

  • There are two instances when we warn the public that water quality at a bathing water may be reduced and may pose a risk to bathers’ health. These are through Pollution Risk Forecasting or due to the occurrence of an environmental incident.    
  • In both cases, when a temporary reduction in water quality is possible, we issue a short-term pollution notification and advise against bathing. These warnings are posted on our water quality website - Swimfo, and we inform the local authority. The local authority are then responsible for ensuring that the appropriate information is actively disseminated and promptly made available to the public. This information should be easily accessible during the bathing season in a nearby location (such as a beach access point).
  • This allows bathers to avoid times or locations where the risk of pollution is higher than normal. By doing so, they can reduce the risk of health issues from bathing that may be higher than the annual classification suggests. 
  • Environment Agency advice provided on Swimfo for a potential temporary reduction in water quality at a designated bathing water is provided year-round and is not limited to the bathing water season. 
  • The Environment Agency does not close beaches but provides advice against bathing when there could be a reduction in water quality below its normal bathing water standard.  This allows people to make their own informed decisions on bathing.

What are Pollution Risk Forecasts (PRFs)?

  • Most bathing waters in England consistently receive high water quality almost all the time during the bathing water season. However, some bathing waters experience natural variations in quality that are predictable. This can occur due to factors like the weather and tides that influence the levels of bacteria washed off the land into the sea and their dispersion. We use measurable factors like rain, tide, wind, sunlight, and seasonality, which we model against historical sample results to assess the unique risk factors of each bathing water.
  • When our modelling predicts a temporary reduction in water quality for a given bathing water, we issue a daily pollution risk warning and advise against bathing. These Pollution Risk Forecast (PRF) warnings are published on Swimfo, and the local authority is notified. The beach controller may also provide signage at the bathing water. This allows bathers to avoid times or locations where the risk of pollution is higher than normal, and health risks from bathing may be higher than the annual classification suggests.
  • You can find more information about how these forecasts affect bathing water classification here: Bathing water classifications and short-term pollution - Creating a better place (blog.gov.uk)

What are Environmental Incidents?

  • We run a 24-hour environmental incident response service via our Incident Communication Service hotline number 0800807060. All incidents are assessed and prioritised based on the potential for environmental harm. Local officers may attend or otherwise act to manage and resolve an incident.  
  • At any point during the year, we may need to warn the public that there has been a pollution incident, which may affect bathing water quality.   
  • Pollution incidents can be reported via our national incident service hotline. Once an incident likely to impact on bathing water quality is confirmed, we will publish “advice against bathing” on Swimfo. Such pollution incidents will be subject to our normal incident management procedures and the relevant authorities will be notified.  
  • The environment hotline is the best way to get actions to be prioritised.  
  • We are unable to respond to every environmental incident reported to us, and prioritise those with highest risk.   
  • The more reports we receive, the more information this will provide to build a picture of environmental risks. This enables targeted compliance, regulation, and enforcement.
  • We can only investigate if we get a report of pollution- i.e., an environmental incident report. If this relates to a permitted site, we will also assess its compliance. We do not have any legal powers to take enforcement action for pollution that may occur for compliant activities.  For example the operation of a Combined Sewer Overflow during heavy rainfall (see below).

Why doesn’t the EA notify the public of a pollution incident when storm overflows are discharging into bathing waters?

  • The Environment Agency provides advice against bathing on Swimfo when there may be a temporary reduction in water quality at a bathing water due to a pollution incident or Pollution Risk Forecasts (PRF) based on the modelled prediction from rainfall, wind and tidal patterns. Beach managers are also required to provide signs at the beach so bathers can make their own informed decisions before deciding whether to enter the water.
  • South West Water have their own system to inform bathers when their storm overflows operate, which provides additional information on water quality for the public. WaterfitLive, provides free alerts to the public and beach managers, the Environment Agency and Surfers Against Sewage for beaches in Devon and Cornwall. These alerts indicate when stormwater overflows may be operating to protect people and property from internal sewer flooding, resulting in a temporary affect on bathing water quality.  Further information can be found on the SWW website here.
  • The Environment Agency ‘Swimfo’, South West Water ‘WaterFit Live’ and Surfers Against Sewage ‘Safer Seas and Rivers Service’ are all different systems using different data and information, so the warnings won’t always coincide.
     

Why did we see a decline in classifications in Devon & Cornwall in 2023?

  • In 2023, 99% of designated bathing waters in Devon & Cornwall met the minimum standard of Sufficient, with 97% meeting the highest standards of Good and Excellent.
  • Substantial improvements have been made to bathing water quality nationally: in the early 1990s, just 28% of bathing waters met the highest standards in force at that time. In 2015, stricter standards were introduced
  • While results have remained relatively stable since the new standards were introduced in 2015, multiple factors will cause variations between years. For example, during the 2023 summer the Met Office assessed that June to August was “warm and rather wet”. This will have affected the results from 2023 due to the effects of land run-off, sewage spills from storm overflows and diffuse pollution from agriculture and highway drainage. This temporarily affects water quality but if it is happening frequently across the bathing water season, it will affect the classification.
  • There are a range of other complex factors, which also influence bathing water quality, including tides, wind and physical or environmental changes at a site.
  • A change in classification doesn’t always mean there has been a significant change in water quality. There are defined limits for bacteria in each of the four classifications and there will always be bathing waters where the influences on water quality mean that they are close to classification boundaries. This means that they may fluctuate between classifications, even though the water quality is similar over the long term.   
  • We work together with local partners to improve water quality at Poor or Sufficient bathing waters through Bathing Water Action Plans. If a bathing water is classified as Poor, a sign will be displayed the following year advising against bathing and we advise against bathing on Swimfo.
  • If we find that any bathing water is deteriorating statistically or is considered to be 'at risk', we will classify it as a 'priority bathing water' and create a Bathing Water Action Plan. These plans will provide a summary of the sources of pollution, any actions taken to investigate or improve the quality of the bathing water, and plans for the future of the bathing water.

Are rivers suitable for bathing?

  • Regulations in England for rivers and open waters are designed primarily to protect wildlife, rather than human health.
  • Bacteria from pollution caused by sewage and animal slurry pose the biggest risks to human health, while largely not affecting wildlife and therefore not being subject to controls in the past. While there is an increasing interest in using England's rivers for recreation, rivers have not been managed for this purpose until very recently.
  • Bathing water legislation is primarily designed for waters specifically managed for recreation, with associated facilities to support this.
  • Rivers are closer to bacteria sources than the sea and do not have the same degree of natural disinfection and dilution that occurs in salty coastal waters.
  • The River Wharfe and the Thames are the first two rivers to be designated as bathing waters in the UK. Designation does not mean the river is fit for swimming, but rather ensures that classifications are made, and pollution prevention measures are planned to meet bathing water standards.

What are the health risks of swimming in bathing waters if they are polluted? 

  • Anyone can become unwell when swimming in open waters. To help reduce the risk of becoming ill, UK Health Security Agency and the Environment Agency offer advice in their ‘Swim Healthy’ guidance  which is available to read before making any decisions on swimming.  

 What is the EA doing to improve poor and sufficient bathing waters?

  • We work together with local partners to improve water quality at Poor or Sufficient bathing waters. If a bathing water is classified as Poor, a sign will be displayed the following year advising against bathing and we advise against bathing on Swimfo.
  • The classifications for 2023 in Devon and Cornwall show that 1% of bathing waters are classified as Poor and 3% are classified as sufficient.  We will be analysing action plans over the coming months and following up with further investigations at many of these sites.
  • In Devon and Cornwall we have action plans for bathing waters that have deteriorated or have ‘at risk’ water quality. We use these to investigate sources of pollution and work with partners to rectify problems when possible.

Has the increase in storm overflow spills led to a decline in water quality at bathing water sites?

  • The Environment Agency has made water companies monitor their storm overflows to capture information on how they are performing. South West Water now have Event Duration Monitors installed on 100% of their storm overflows. This means we can all see the true extent of storm overflow spills, and the Environment Agency and government can direct water company investment to stop it. 
  • All organisations that have a role to play in improving the water environment must take collective responsibility and demonstrate that we can work together to deliver the Government’s Plan for Water. The Plan for Water sets out more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to tackle widespread sources of pollution and clean up our water quality. 

How much does sewage impact water quality, compared to other factors such as agriculture?

  • Through successive rounds of investment over the last few decades most of the sewage assets with the potential to affect bathing waters have been addressed with storm overflows only permitted to discharge significantly two or three times per bathing water season and continuous discharges now either moved away from the bathing water or disinfected to protect bathers health.  
  • The majority of bathing waters are rated Good or Excellent and problems are rare at these sites. The remaining sites have a mixture of issues which are site specific and while there are undoubtedly still some sewage issues to address, our assessment is that for most sites with issues, sewage is not the main cause of pollution. Other pollution sources include agriculture run-off, birds, dogs, urban drainage with misconnections and contaminated groundwater.  
  • We recognise and share public concern about the impact of storm overflow discharges. With more than 393,000 kilometers of sewers in the UK, storm overflows are one of a number of issues affecting water quality, with agriculture, the wider water industry, and urban runoff representing significantly higher levels of pollution. Our data shows that 7% of waterbodies in England have failed to reach Good Ecological Status because of storm overflows, a significant contribution to the 36% affected by the wider water industry. This compares to agriculture affecting 40% of water bodies and urban and transport affecting 18%. 

 

 

 

 

Audiences

  • Members of the public

Interests

  • Water quality