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Highland wild swimmers should be warned about polluted water


By Ally Tibbitt

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After bathing waters at popular Highland beaches were found to have broken pollution limits five times this summer, locals have called for better signage to warn people when it is dangerous to swim.

Concerns have been raised over pollution at popular Highland wild swimming spots.
Concerns have been raised over pollution at popular Highland wild swimming spots.

New bathing water quality data released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), and first analysed by investigative news site The Ferret, show that 50 of Scotland’s 89 designated bathing waters were in breach of water quality standards during the summer.

When water quality standards are breached, the water may be unsafe to swim in due to the amount of harmful bacteria in it. Contamination is often highest after rainy days when untreated human sewage or faecal matter from animals can be released into the sea or local rivers.

Popular Highland beaches found to have dangerously poor water quality include Dores beach at Loch Ness. It had more than 5 times the safe limit for one type of bacteria in the water on June 21. Safe limits were also exceeded at the same beach on June 12.

Water at Dunnet beach, near Thurso was also found to be contaminated on two occasions in August this year. Samples were taken 10 times over the summer at the popular surfing beach.

Water at Dunnet beach, near Thurso was also found to be contaminated. Picture: DGS.
Water at Dunnet beach, near Thurso was also found to be contaminated. Picture: DGS.

And at Gairloch on the west coast, tests found that Sands beach had poor quality water on one occasion in July. The beach is often used by tourists as it is close to a large camp site.

Iona McLachlan, partner of Thurso-based North Coast Watersports said: “I had no idea about this and I am in the water nearly every day.

“Obviously, when you’re surfing water can get in your mouth and in your sinuses, so there is going to be a risk to health.

“Maybe I was naive about this, but I had assumed that the water quality up here was always very good so it’s a bit of a worry if that’s not always the case. It would be good if there was a local page or something that would keep people informed when it might not be safe to go in the water.”

Chris Balance, Green councillor for the Loch Ness area which includes Dores beach agreed.

Dores beach on Loch Ness is a popular swimming spot over summer. Picture: Gary Anthony.
Dores beach on Loch Ness is a popular swimming spot over summer. Picture: Gary Anthony.

“Dores beach is one of the most popular freshwater swimming areas in Scotland, so it is deeply disappointing to see that it failed water quality standards in June this year.

“SEPA should put up a warning sign as soon as it discovers water is not safe to bathe in, so that the public can have confidence that they are swimming in good quality, clean water.”

“Outdoor swimming should be good for both physical and mental health, but people need to know the freshwater they are swimming in is not going to make them ill.”

Balance also said there was a longer term trend of deteriorating water quality at Dores beach. As well as calling on SEPA to install warning notices, he also said Scottish Water should do more to clean-up its act too.

“It’s concerning to note that water quality at Dores has gradually deteriorated from Excellent in 2018 to Good in 2021 and only Sufficient this year.

“Clean water is a key selling point for Scottish tourism. Scottish Water has a duty to clean up its act – and to keep our bathing waters clean, and to investigate when something goes wrong. I note that SEPA have required Scottish Water to install spill monitors on its sewer outflows at Dores by the end of next year, and this needs to be done in time for next year’s season.”

Big Sand, Gairloch.
Big Sand, Gairloch.

The spill monitors will alert authorities exactly when local sewerage outflows are releasing untreated waste into the water.

In recent years publicly-owned Scottish Water has been under increasing pressure to modernise sewage treatment systems around the country so that the amount of untreated sewage that flows into watercourses during periods of heavy rainfall is monitored and reduced.

Water quality at other Highland beaches with designated bathing waters at Rosemarkie, Thurso, Dornoch and Achmelvich were found to stay within safe limits throughout the summer.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) said: “Scotland’s bathing water quality is the best it has been since 2015 when tighter standards first came into force. This summer’s season started with more bathing waters than ever before, and a record-breaking number rated excellent.

“SEPA's specialist teams take samples at all our bathing waters throughout the season, providing water quality information for all those who wish to visit. Bathers are advised on our website or electronic beach signs if the water quality is predicted to be poor so they can make an informed choice before entering the water.”

“SEPA continue to raise or maintain the state of bathing waters throughout the country for the benefit of the communities and visitors who use them.”

A Scottish Water spokesperson said that it planned to install 1000 new sewage outflow monitors by the end of 2024, including all outflows within 2km of all designated bathing waters in Scotland

“Not every case of high levels of contamination at a bathing water is associated with Scottish Water discharges because some bathing waters have no Scottish Water discharges nearby. Agricultural run-off can often be a significant factor,” they said.

“Scottish Water ensures its assets are performing properly before and during the bathing season. Whenever there is a high result, meeting the agreed trigger level, we carry out investigations to ensure our assets are operating as intended.

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


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