07 June 2024


You may have seen that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) recently announced 27 new bathing water sites have been designated across England. Among these were three sites within our region, including Manningtree Beach in Essex, the River Cam at Sheep's Green in Cambridge and the River Stour at Sudbury in Suffolk. But you may be wondering, what does this actually mean? Anglian Water’s Strategic Recreational Water Quality Manager, Adam Worley, explains what bathing water designation really means and how it benefits our local bathing water sites.  
Since the pandemic wild swimming has grown in popularity. During the various phases of lockdown many people found new ways of making the most of those precious hours outside, and for many of us it meant sticking to our local area and getting out into the environment. 
Activities like canoeing and paddleboarding have had a renaissance and most recently there’s been a wave of newly designated inland bathing sites three, in Anglian Water’s region alone, and lots of talk about bacteria in rivers, public health and storm overflows. But what does it all mean? 
What is bathing water designation?  
Bathing water designation is a formal programme overseen by DEFRA. Anyone can apply to designate or de-designate a bathing water. Equally any river, stream or open body of water can in theory apply to be designated providing it meets certain criteria: 

  • be a coastal or inland water
  • have at least 100 bathers a day during the bathing season (15 May to 30 September)
  • have toilet and other facilities bathers can use during the bathing season, within a short distance of up to about 500m from the site  

The bathing season is from 15 May to 30 September.  If a site is designated, the Environment Agency will formally monitor the water quality during the bathing season to protect the health of people bathing. The Environment Agency monitors levels of E. coli and intestinal enterococci at designated bathing waters. They also look for indications of cyanobacteria, macro-algae, marine phytoplankton and waste. At the end of the season the bathing water is give a water quality classification (excellent, good, sufficient or poor) dependant on the water quality results. 
Where do water companies come in? 

Outside of designated bathing sites, there are currently no bacteriological standards for river water quality or coastal water quality.  Lots of different types of viruses and bacteria exist in the environment naturally or come from animals and fish. 
Even though water companies treat the water from our homes to a very high standard, what’s returned to rivers and seas, will still contain some bacteria and other nutrients. 
Once a stretch of river or coastline is formally designated, different, more stringent standards for water quality come into place to project the health and wellbeing of people swimming in the area. 
Critically, this designation process allows water companies to put forward investment into investigations to identify sources of poorer water quality (from its own network and other places) and solutions to help protect and improve the site. This is usually in the form of ultra violet disinfection as the final part of the water recycling process, but can also include work to upgrade the sewer network, reduce storm spills, or create more capacity to hold excess water during extreme weather.  All of these plans need approval from the water industry regulator Ofwat. 
Bathing waters in our region 

Over the last two decades we’ve spent over £300million improving the water quality around our coastline. Last year, 92% of our coastal bathing waters were good or excellent for water quality. This is really good progress, but we are working hard to improve the other 8% where we can, or by working with others that also contribute to environmental quality. 
Last year, we had three newly designated inland bathing sites in our region, including at our own reservoir at Rutland Water, where the swimming area has become the first inland site to be rated excellent for water quality. 
As part of our Get River Positive commitment, we’re already working closely with the passionate river groups involved with these sites, supporting their successful designation applications. Now our focus will turn to making sure we have the right investment plans in place to help them protect and improve the water quality at the places where they love to swim. 
With the longest coastline of any English water company, caring for our beaches is very important to us. As part of our Get River Positive commitment, we’ve pledged to ensure that everyone in our region lives within a 60 minute drive of a designated bathing water site by 2030. Central to this commitment, is ensuring we’re making the necessary improvements to our existing infrastructure, to ensure it is not the cause of harm for the environment.  
Where can you swim? 

The best place to find the latest information about designated bathing waters is on the Environment Agency Swimfo website
We’re continuing to make significant investments across our region to improve bathing water quality, which you can find out more here. Further information on the classifications of our region's bathing waters can be found here