Despite recent raises in standards, the UK still has a lot of work to do to improve bathing water quality. So, when should you worry? And what can you do to help?
About bathing water quality
Each sample tells us the quality of the water at that specific time, but water can change even over the course of one day. Water tests look for bacteria that show whether there is faecal matter (animal or human) in the water. The bacteria are Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Intestinal enterococci (IE). The more of these bacteria there are, the greater risks to bathers' health, causing stomach upsets and ear infections.
There are a few things that cause bathing water quality to deteriorate. Heavy rain, for example, washes surface pollution from our streets and fields into rivers and the sea. Water companies are still allowed to let storm sewers overflow into the sea during heavy rain. Sometimes there's a specific pollution incident, such as poo that was found in the marine lake last year. In the marine lake, which isn't fed by running water, warm water temperatures, a high number of bathers and a gap between top overs (when the sea comes over the wall) causes the bathing water quality to deteriorate, which is what's happened over the last couple of weeks.
Poor bathing water quality in the marine lake
Over the last couple of weeks, the quality of the water in the marine lake at Clevedon has gone from excellent to poor. A poor water quality result means that swimming in the marine lake is not a good idea.
The recent hot spell has meant two things: one, the water temperature has risen to a rather tropical 24 degrees, and, two, the number of people in, on and around the lake has multiplied. Every human (and creature) is host to a multitude of bacteria. So, bacteria from people's skin, hands, mouths etc have washed into the lake and the water's been too warm to kill them. While the UV light from the sun zaps bacteria near the surface, the high tides haven't been high enough to freshen up the water.
The plan now is to start draining the water from the lake on Tuesday, July 30th. On July 31st, once the water is drained, we'll take the opportunity to clean the bottom and sides of the lake of any debris. The sea will start topping over on August 1st so that, by the end of the weekend, the lake will be full of fresh seawater.
How to swim healthily
Outdoor swimming is all about enjoying wild, untreated water. While you can find out the bathing water quality of most coastal places in the UK, many wild swimming spots aren't even tested. Apart from avoiding water that's obviously stagnant or fetid, there are a few things you can do to keep risks of illness to a minimum:
Use goggles and earplugs to protect your ears and eyes
Cover over any wounds, cuts or abrasions
Learn good breathing techniques so you don't drink the water
After swimming, wash your hands or use sanitising gel before eating
Have a shower as soon as possible
Drink cola! Many outdoor swimmers swear by drinking cola after a swim because its ingredients (eg phosphoric acid) are thought to kill off harmful bacteria in the stomach. I like to think that the quinine in tonic water does the same, so a G&T is an alternative post-swim drink!
Keep your swimming spot healthy
Outdoor swimming is also about helping to protect and promote spots for us to enjoy alongside the natural inhabitants of our seas, lakes, rivers and streams. While we might not be able to stop incidents like that at Clevedon Marine Lake from happening, there are things we can do to lessen our impact and help keep our bathing water cleaner.
Litter pick: the amount of litter left at the marine lake after a busy day is shocking. There are litter picking tools at the Salthouse Pub that we can use for a quick clean.
Be vigilant about dogs: if you see a dog by the lake, politely remind its owner that dogs aren't allowed by the lake. A tiny amount of dog poo can cause a lot of pollution.
Go to the loo before you get in the lake, and try to avoiding peeing in it.
Shower before you swim
Use ocean-friendly sunscreens, or wait to apply your sunscreen until you get out.
Avoid swimming with a stomach upset and at least 48 hours after your last bout of vomiting or diarrhoea.
Volunteer with MARLENS, the charity that looks after the marine lake: come along on the 31st July to help with the clear up.
Join Surfers Against Sewage to help campaign for better bathing water quality.