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Heavy summer rainfall putting pressure on Irish beaches and increasing temporary closures, EPA warns

Heavy rainfall events are putting extra pressure on Ireland’s beaches, resulting in more closures to protect public health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Incidents of extreme rainfall, likely to be exacerbated by global warming, highlight “the need to build climate resilience into the effective management of bathing waters” as the threat is likely to continue, the watchdog says in its annual report on bathing water quality.

Record rainfall levels last July and storms in August led to more beach closures last year than in previous years.

However, bathing water quality was high overall last year, with 97 per cent (143 of 148) of monitored sites meeting or exceeding the minimum standard, the same number as in 2022. A total of 114 bathing sites (77 per cent) were deemed to have excellent water quality, down from 117 in 2022.

The number of beaches with “poor” bathing water quality increased to five (3.5 per cent), up from three in 2022. Discharges from wastewater overflows and “misconnections” – sewage going into surface water drains rather than sewers – are the main issues at these locations. Local authorities are required to have management plans in place to address such issues.

Beaches classified as “poor” were Balbriggan Front Strand beach, Co Dublin; Lady’s Bay (Buncrana, Co Donegal), and Trá na mBan (An Spidéal, Co Galway), which were also poor in 2022, and Loughshinny and Sandymount beaches in Co Dublin.

Bathing water quality can be impacted by heavy rainfall, resulting in wastewater overflows and run-off from agricultural land and urban areas, which can cause short-term deterioration in water quality.

Urban wastewater-related incidents last year were the most frequently reported cause of beach closures. Run-off from agriculture, fouling from dogs, wastewater from nearby properties due to misconnections, and algal blooms also impacted bathing waters.

“While our bathing water quality is generally very good overall, there is a need to build climate resilience into the management of bathing waters to reduce the risk of pollution following heavy rainfall,” said Dr Eimear Cotter, director of the EPA’s office of evidence and assessment.

This needs action by all sectors including Uisce Éireann, local authorities and agriculture to reduce overflows, she added.

“While beach closures play an important role in protecting bathers’ health, local authorities need to improve their understanding of the pressures which can impact beaches in the context of changing rainfall patterns,” Dr Cotter said.

A total of 45 pollution incidents were reported to the EPA last year, up from 34 in 2022. These incidents have the potential to cause a pollution risk and, when they occur, swimming restrictions are applied at the beach until sampling shows the water quality is safe.

Local authorities also put up 228 “prior warning” notices at beaches to warn swimmers that short-term pollution (lasting no more than a few days) may occur due to heavy rainfall. This was an increase of 42 on the previous year. These warnings are removed when sampling shows water quality is safe.

Relevant local authorities and Uisce Éireann have plans in place to improve water quality at these beaches which “must be fully implemented to make these beaches safe for swimming”, the EPA report says.

No new bathing water sites were identified last year, though monitoring continues at almost 80 beaches which are smaller and less popular bathing locations, not formally managed by local authorities.

Real-time information on bathing water quality and updates on monitoring results are available during the bathing water season (June 1st to September 15th) at www.beaches.ie

Where were the ‘poor’ quality bathing waters?

Sandymount Strand (Dublin City Council)

The main sources of pollution are misconnections and sewage overflows which contaminate streams flowing to the bathing water; dog and bird fouling. The Dublin Bay Bathing Water Taskforce (chaired by the local authority) was established in 2019 to help identify and fix pollution sources impacting Dublin Bay. This led to a “Leave only Paw Prints” campaign raising awareness of dog fouling impacts. Programmes to identify and fix misconnections are ongoing. Uisce Éireann has made significant improvements to the wastewater network with ongoing work addressing pressures on urban wastewater.

Balbriggan, Front Strand Beach (Fingal County Council)

Main sources of pollution are misconnections into stormwater networks and sewage overflows which contaminate streams flowing to the bathing water; dog fouling, birds and other animals. Uisce Éireann is completing a pumping station upgrade and improving the nearby sewer network.

Loughshinny Beach (Fingal County Council)

The main sources of pollution are sewage overflows, misconnections into stormwater networks, poorly operating septic tanks, dog fouling and other animals. Programmes to address these issues and to identify pollution sources from streams are planned by the local authority.

Lady’s Bay, Buncrana (Donegal County Council)

The main source of pollution is untreated wastewater released occasionally from the town’s collecting system. Uisce Éireann is progressing a large upgrade of the collecting system to improve its performance and provide more storage for wastewater collected during heavy rainfall.

Trá na mBan, An Spidéal (Galway County Council)

Main sources of pollution are urban wastewater; run-off from agriculture, and septic tanks. A new wastewater treatment plant at Spiddal was constructed by Uisce Éireann and opened in November. Galway County Council has committed to continuing to farm inspections and address septic tank issues.

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