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Scotland’s summer starts with more bathing waters than ever before and a record-breaking number rated excellent

Date published: 31 May 2023

Bathing waters

The Cabinet Secretary Màiri McAllan has designated Wardie Bay and Fisherrow Sands as Scottish bathing waters as the season starts on the 1st June.

Cabinet Secretary designates Wardie Bay and Fisherrow Sands as Scottish bathing waters

  • Scottish bathing water season starts 1st June with more bathing waters rated excellent than ever before
  • Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition Màiri McAllan, designates Wardie Bay and Fisherrow Sands as Scottish bathing waters
  • Designation brings the total number of Bathing Waters in Scotland to 89
  • Improvements in water quality show long-term success but there is more to do
  • Water quality samples will be taken by SEPA across the season and results posted online to keep visitors informed
  • Locals and visitors encouraged to play their part in protecting and improving the quality of bathing waters

Scotland’s summers are known for both sunshine and showers – but whatever the weather the country’s environment regulator will be collecting and analysing water samples, predicting water quality and keeping beach users informed over the next three and a half months.

The Scottish bathing water season begins on 1st June and runs until 15th September, with 1,500 water samples taken by Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) staff at bathing waters around the country. In 2023 locals and visitors have more options than ever to choose from – with one brand new beach joining the list, and the nation’s first re-designation following decisions by Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition, Màiri McAllan.

Wardie Bay in Edinburgh has become the latest bathing water to join the list of 89 in total, following an application by a local community group. It joins alongside Fisherrow Sands in East Lothian, which has been re-designated following improvement works to improve water quality. Both beaches will have their water quality formally monitored and reported and will receive an official classification for the 2024 season.

2023 not only sees the highest number of bathing waters ever in Scotland, but the highest number rated excellent for water quality – and a total of 98% of locations achieving a classification of sufficient or better.

Màiri McAllan, Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition, said:

“As a result of our investment in protecting and improving bathing waters across Scotland we now have the highest number of designated Bathing Water sites ever, with 98% passing bathing water quality standards and more rated as ‘excellent’ than ever before.

“However, we are not complacent. We continue to work closely with SEPA and Scottish Water to monitor and improve water quality on our designated beaches and in our designated lochs, to ensure that as many people as possible are able to enjoy them throughout this summer and beyond.”

Ruth Stidson, SEPA’s Principal Scientist for bathing waters, said:

“Scotland is renowned for its water environment and it starts the 2023 season with record-breaking number of bathing waters rated as ‘excellent’. The number of bathing waters that are now meeting the standard is a testament to the work of SEPA and partners over the years, driving investment and improvement in both rural and urban areas.

“Time at the beach can be active or restful, and for many it’s a budget-friendly day out – especially when it’s near to their home. Many living in coastal communities use them regularly for walking or quiet reflection, as well as wild swimming, paddling and water-based recreation. Visitors often plan a whole day around time near the water, including visits to local shops and cafes.

“This season our staff will take around 1,500 samples around the country, analyse them in our accredited laboratories, and post the results online. We also have a network of 30 electronic signs at bathing waters that can be affected by rain fall, where we post the predicted water quality by 10am every day so people can make informed decisions about whether to bathe or enjoy shore-based activities. We can also make people aware of any pollution events that may impact the water quality. This information is also available on our website and by calling our contact centre.

“The results of our annual sampling also show us where further improvements need to be made - allowing us to continue to deliver real progress in the coming years for the future of our water environment.”

Professor Simon Parsons, Scottish Water’s Strategic Customer Service Planning Director, said:

“Scottish Water is committed to continuing to support the protection and improvement of Scotland’s rivers, coastal waters and beaches and we are pleased to hear from SEPA that there are more bathing waters than ever before and a record number rated excellent.

“We look forward to playing our part in ensuring bathing waters become destinations for people to enjoy Scotland’s fantastic coastal waters.

“Scottish Water has invested £2.7 billion in improving and maintaining the country’s public drainage system and infrastructure over the past decade to help improve our waters. Our Improving Urban Waters Routemap, which supports the national River Basin Management Plan objectives (92% good water quality by 2027), commits us to additional investment of up to £500m to further improve water quality.”

Coastal community spaces

Local blue and green spaces are integral to our physical and mental health. Managing them well can improve well-being and other social and cultural benefits for local communities and visitors alike.

Wardie Bay

Wardie Bay in Edinburgh is the latest location to be designated as a bathing water following an application from Wardie Bay Beachwatch and The Wild Ones who demonstrated that a large number of bathers use the water and there was community support for designation. Edinburgh Council supported the designation, accepting required duties around signage and beach cleaning.

During 2022, SEPA sampled and reported water quality at Wardie Bay due to high community usage of the beach and an active application for bathing water designation. Our evidence indicates that Wardie Bay is expected to meet bathing water standards. Now designated by the Cabinet Secretary, the beach will be formally monitored and receive an official classification for 2024.

Karen Bates, Wardie Bay Beachwatch, said:

“It has taken much time and effort to achieve this result for the #wardiebay4bathingwater campaign. We can finally be delighted that Wardie Bay is to be a protected bathing water.

“We are grateful to Cabinet Secretary Mairi McAllan for her progressive decision and for support from Council members who surmounted the obstacles to designation at this complex site. We are grateful too that SEPA published the essential information for Wardie swimmers in 2022. Thanks particularly to all those who help protect Wardie Bay, who signed the petition, took part in the campaign film and contributed to the applications.”

Fisherrow Sands

Fisherrow Sands in East Lothian has been re-designated following a project to improve water quality. The location was de-designated in 2020 following five consecutive poor results.

Pressures included overflows from the drainage network and misconnections from homes and businesses to surface waters.

SEPA has worked closely with the Scottish Government, Scottish Water, East Lothian Council and wider stakeholders to drive improvements and ensure these issues are addressed.

Over £3 million has been spent on works to improve water quality. This includes upgrades to waste water pumping stations, resolving multiple mis-connections and improvements to the sewer network to reduce spills. Sampling evidence from 2021 and 2022 indicates that, following this work, Fisherrow Sands can meet bathing water quality.

Increasing interest in improving water quality

With growing public interest in the quality of Scotland’s water environment, the improvement in bathing waters is a testament to the work that has already happened – and the reality of the resources required.

In 2016, the first year of water quality classifications under the new Bathing Water Directive, 80% of locations were classified as sufficient or better, with 17 rated excellent and 17 rated poor. In 2023, that figure has improved dramatically, 98% of bathing waters are rated sufficient or better, with 38 excellent and two poor.

Our Scottish climate impacts on water quality – due to heavy rain washing contaminants off both rural and urban land and overflows from sewage systems. As a result, it is recommended that users do not bathe for up to two days after heavy rain – and beaches with SEPA electronic signs will warn against bathing when poor water is predicted.

SEPA has focussed on improvement plans at all poor beaches to identify the causes and work with partners to realise real change.

SEPA has ensured Scottish Water investment has been targeted at areas where it will have the greatest impact, with major improvements in water quality at locations that had long-term issues such as Irvine and Ayr, following projects to upgrade sewage systems, install new treatment and investigate mis-connections. Scottish Water has invested £24.5m on bathing water improvements since 2015, including £10m at Ayr.

In addition, Scottish Water has committed to installing monitors and publishing near real-time data on every CSO discharging to a Bathing or Shellfish Water by the end of 2024. SEPA will ensure this commitment is delivered.

SEPA officers have walked river catchments and worked with farmers, who have started using new practices and spent significant sums of money on additional slurry storage facilities and installing alternative means of livestock watering to reach compliance. Some have gone even further than is legally required, by planting riparian zones which move their farming activities further away from the water’s edge. Past improvements have led to more than 90% of farms being compliant - an increase of 50% in ten years.

The two bathing waters classified as poor for 2023, Lower Largo (designated in 2022) and Kinghorn (Harbour) both in Fife, have improvement plans in place. SEPA is carrying out investigations at Kinghorn to identify the cause of this recent deterioration and further monitoring is planned. At Lower Largo, Scottish Water have been carrying out work to help assess bathing water impacts from the local drainage network. This work includes camera surveys, sampling and testing for misconnections from properties, which will help inform future improvement options.

SEPA will continue to monitor and report water quality and determine how best to drive water quality improvements over the next few years.

My Beach Your Beach project shows improvements in litter and dog fouling

My Beach, Your Beach launched in 2018, and over the last five years has supported bathing water quality improvements at seven Scottish beaches, in partnership with local community groups and beach managers. You can find out more, watch the campaign film and read the report at My Beach, Your Beach.

Notes to editors

The following images are available to download from SEPA’s image library to illustrate this story. You do not need to register to access these images.

  • Wardie Bay in Edinburgh Details of the image item Wardie Bay designation 2023 | SEPA Image Library
  • Karen Bates, Wardie Bay Beach Watch (left) and Ruth Stidson, SEPA (right) with Wardie Bay wild swimmers Details of the image item Wardie Bay designation 2023 | SEPA Image Library
  • Wardie Bay wild swimmers Details of the image item Wardie Bay designation 2023 | SEPA Image Library

Further information on bathing waters is available. This includes:

  • the annual designations for 2023
  • information on designation and how to apply
  • predicted water quality at beaches with electronic signs
  • beach profiles for each bathing water
  • sample results during the season

Bathing water designation process

Scottish Ministers decide on the list of bathing waters to be designated, including new bathing waters, prior to each bathing season. When considering designation, Ministers will take a number of factors into account. Key considerations are the number of people bathing, past trends, infrastructure provided to support bathing, the promotion of bathing and beach management as well as other facilities and local/public views.

Local authorities usually apply for designation, but any organisation or individual can apply. More information, including designation application forms is available.

Diffuse pollution

  • Often driven by rainfall, diffuse pollution arises from the loss of substances such as phosphorus, faecal pathogens, nitrates and pesticides, often bound to soil particles, from the land into the local water environment. Individually, these losses may be of little risk to water quality, but when combined across a whole catchment, they can have a serious impact on ecology and bathing waters.
  • Diffuse pollution priority catchments have been identified by SEPA as catchments failing to meet environmental standards. Each catchment has a dedicated coordinator who is responsible for liaising with local land managers, organising visits and ensuring measures are implemented where non-compliances are identified as detailed within the Rural diffuse pollution plan for Scotland. This approach was agreed in partnership with the Diffuse Pollution Management Advisory Group (DPMAG).
  • More information about priority catchments can be found at Priority catchments.

Urban waters routemap

  • The national plan to improve urban waters, was required by SEPA and Scottish Water published this in 2021. The plan set out the efforts required to tackle the most significant environmental impacts as soon as possible.
  • The route map details the actions required by Scottish Water, as a public body and a responsible authority for River Basin Management Planning. SEPA is clear in our regulatory role in ensuring Scottish Water delivers against its Urban Waters Route Map and River Basin Management Plan objectives.