Water quality affects New Year 'Loony Dook'

Hardy souls participating in the New Year ‘Loony Dook’ can be reassured about the quality of the water, even if the temperature causes concern, research has shown.

Bathing water quality is intricately linked to up-stream land use activities and research by a consortium of scientists from the Aberdeen-based Macaulay Land Use Research Institute (the Macaulay), SAC and the University of Aberystwyth have shown that simple practical on-farm measures can reduce the levels of contamination of bathing waters by livestock derived faecal matter.

Bathing waters are an important asset to people in Scotland, valued both for tourism and for the recreational potential that they provide. They are protected by the European Union's Bathing Water Directives which require that water quality at all designated bathing waters meets stringent microbiological standards in order to protect the health of people who choose to bathe there.

The main objective of the Bathing Water Directives is to protect public health and the environment from faecal pollution. Member States are required to identify popular bathing areas and to monitor water quality throughout the bathing season. Each year between early June and mid September, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) monitors the quality of designated ‘bathing waters’ and makes this information available online and through a daily predictive signage system.

However, water quality standards are tightening from 2015 and there is pressure to extend the range of sites monitored for water quality so that other water uses such as surfing, kayaking, diving and other activities which are not restricted to the bathing water season are better covered. The two main standards used to assess the quality of bathing water are total coliforms and faecal coliforms, which are bacteria found in the guts of humans and other warm-blooded animals and are indicators of faecal pollution.

Diffuse pollution from agricultural sources is one of the main sources of faecal coliforms and one of the main reasons why water bodies fail Water Framework Directive objectives. Faecal pollution can enter streams and rivers from sources such as farm animals or slurries applied to the land as fertilisers. All of these contain microorganisms capable of causing severe disease in humans.

Contaminated streams and rivers pass into coastal bathing waters where human infections such as gastro-enteritis, cryptosporidiosis and E. coli O157 have been linked to recreational use of waters.

Research carried out by the Macaulay over a number of projects in partnership with SAC, the Centre for Environmental Health, University of Aberystwyth, SEPA and the University of Edinburgh has investigated the sources and transport of faecal coliforms to improve understanding of pollutant emissions from different land uses and to assess the effectiveness of mitigation measures in order to reduce risk to human health.

Results show that implementing on-farm measures such as fencing of watercourses, farm ponds and improved slurry storage prevented faecal material entering water courses and helped to improve bathing water quality.
Dr Andy Vinten, a Principal Researcher in Catchment Management and Water Quality from the Macaulay says, “Bathing water quality in Scotland is improving thanks to investment in both sewage treatment and in improved livestock management to prevent faecal material entering water. Livestock obviously need access to drinking water, but unrestricted access to burns and rivers as well as the application of slurries and manures and the presence of feeders close to water can add faecal bacteria, which in turn can affect coastal bathing waters.”

“Understanding waterborne transport and survival of faecal bacteria from farm sources is critical to assessing the risk to human health from recreational use of waters. Our on-going monitoring of ground and surface water is providing detailed information across a range of water quality issues and work is continuing to evaluate the effects of measures to reduce contamination.”

While farm-scale measures have proved successful, catchment-wide approaches are needed to ensure effective pollution mitigation. Partnership working between researchers and individual farmers, land users, regulators such as SEPA as well other stakeholders is essential to ensure New Year bathers can take their dip safe in the knowledge that although the temperature of the water is likely to be freezing, the quality is likely to be good.

Notes to editors

Transport and survival of faecal coliforms in waters
Surface waters within agricultural catchments are impacted by diffuse pollution from on-farm sources which contain pathogenic microorganisms capable of causing severe disease in humans. On-farm sources include direct deposition from livestock, run-off of dirty water and organic wastes (manures, slurries and other wastes) which are applied to land as fertiliser.

Diffuse Pollution General Binding Rule (DP GBR) 19: keeping livestock
Both what you do on the land and how you manage run-off In force since April 2008, the Diffuse Pollution General Binding Rule (DP GBR) 19 requires farmers and land managers to prevent:

  • significant erosion or poaching of any land within five metres of surface water or wetlands
  • livestock entering any land that is within five metres of a spring that supplies water for human
  • consumption, or a well or borehole that has not been capped to prevent the ingress of water
  • the positioning of any livestock feeders within 10 metres of any surface water or wetland.

Water Framework Directive
The European Water Framework Directive (EC, 2000) requires Member States to set water quality objectives and identify cost-effective mitigation measures to achieve good ecological status (GES) for all waters in Europe. Diffuse agricultural pollution is a key contributor affecting water quality with many Scottish rivers considered to be at risk.

‘Loony Dook’
The most famous Dook takes place from the Boathouse Steps in South Queensferry. To the sound of the bagpipes, the participants make a mad dash into the water before quickly retreating back to shore. The event which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary, attracts participants from all over the world, many in fancy dress as they take the plunge in the River Forth. It also attracts large numbers of spectators of all nationalities.

At Broughty Ferry, Dundee, the New Year's Day Dook has been taking place for more than 30 years and is organised by Ye Amphibious Ancients Bathing Association, a local open water swimming club. More than 100 swimmers take part every year braving the harbour waters come rain, snow, hail or shine.

On the West Coast of Scotland, the New Year Swim takes place from Rhu marina.

Published on 01 January 2011 in Food, health and wellbeing