Bathing water


Bathing water designation qualifies sites for regular water quality testing throughout the bathing season. These sites are the only stretches of water where regulators are legally obliged to test and monitor the water quality (which is still limited).

There are currently only three inland bathing sites in England (the River Wharfe at Ilkley, Wolvercote Mill Stream at Oxford and River Deben at Waldringfield). All 3 of these designations were achieved by incredible community campaigns. This year SAS is engaging with 50 communities, through the Protecting Wild Waters campaign, who want to see improvements to their river and lakes by applying for bathing water designation, 20 of which plan to apply this year.

Designation means that water users have the information they need about the quality of the water allowing them to decide if they should use their favourite swim spot.

Bathing water designation is the mechanism to not only ensure water is regularly tested, but to ensure if a bathing site receives a classification of ‘Poor’ that the appropriate agency takes measures at the bathing water to prevent, reduce or eliminate (as appropriate) the causes of pollution.

Following the bathing water application process leads to other benefits – MP engagement, citizen science, media attention, engaged communities, protests – all of which builds the campaign for change at local and national level.

Challenges with designation

The designation process does come with its challenges.

The application requires evidence of the number of bathers (anybody swimming or paddling in the water), available facilities, support of the community, local authority and landowner.

Whilst the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) gave clarity this year that 100 bathers are required each day to meet the criteria in England, this isn’t fit for purpose in relation to how inland waters are used.

No matter how many people use their well-loved river, lake or sea, information on water quality should be available.

We know that people use their bathing sites to surf, swim and paddle all year. The Bathing Water Regulations 2013 only enforces that regulators monitor water quality for just two bacteria during the bathing season.

We need changes to the regulations to create an enhanced testing regime, monitoring for additional pollutants all year round (including phosphates, nitrates, microplastics and antibiotic resistance).

Find out more about the application process for bathing water designation or explore active local campaigns.

Fabulous photo with thanks to the Manningtree Mermaids, TazzyBro Photography and Batoko Swimwear

Figure 10
Protecting Wild Waters campaign map showing the current designated bathing sites and active SAS community campaigns.


If a bathing site receives a classification of “Poor” for 5 consecutive years then it is de-designated.

This time period isn’t always long enough to make changes to the water quality, to therefore improve the bathing sites’ classification.

One of the biggest barriers in making improvements is the price review cycle. Water companies are currently planning their delivery and investment for the next 5 years in line with the price review; PR24. If a bathing site is designated and falls outside the planning period of the price review there may not be investment in place that is required to make improvements and prevent de-designation. We need regulations and price review limitations to ensure that our bathing sites are given the best possible opportunity to succeed.

We are working with 20 of these bathing water communities to support them in a citizen science programme to conduct their own water quality testing – so they can see the real picture of water quality at their site to help them campaign for designation.