TEST season is upon us – and we’re not talking A Levels, GCSEs or even SATs.The Environment Agency last week made the first of around 20 visits to the Fylde coast, to put the sea water through its paces.
Testers started at St Annes, before following the tide up to Fleetwood, making various stops along the way to collect sea water samples.
And the results are more than a little important.
They will be plotted on new maps on the internet, letting the public see how the water has fared, to give holidaymakers a more informed decision about where they want to take a dip.
The quality tests are also a vital part of the criteria for Blue Flag status – the prestigious beach quality scheme which Blackpool and Fylde are so sadly lacking.
Blackpool’s director of tourism Helen France said: “The issue for us is the standards are constantly improving, as is the quality of Blackpool’s sea water.
“There are very few Blue Flags which have been issued in the North West. As an authority we have to constantly chase moving targets.
“The important thing is people know the water’s safe and they can come and enjoy the sea.”
Only Wyre can boast Quality Coast Awards, an offshoot of the Blue Flag scheme, for Jubilee Beach in Cleveleys and Manor Beach in Fleetwood. Senior environment monitoring officer Rachel Haigh is one of the army of Environment Agency staff who oversee the water testing procedure.
Rachel, from Carleton, said: “We take samples to see if they comply with current bathing water legislation.
“We’ve started to publish all of the results on the internet, so bathers can make a more informed decision.
“Everything is looked at, including possible sources of contamination.”
So in Fylde, there are potential problems with cattle grazing on the Ribble estuary, where effluent may be carried down river to the sea; in Blackpool, it’s more likely to be sewage-related, although improvements to United Utilities’ facilities in the region have been significant in recent years.
Rachel added: “We’re trying to provide more information, including a link to the compliance of these beaches and exactly how they have performed.
“We have to follow strict guidelines about the timings of when we take the samples and use sterilised bottles.
“While we collect the sample, we are looking for other signs, such as sewage and dead marine life.
“Tests are taken around 20 times through the season and that can also help determine any sources of pollution.”
The Environment Agency officers are charged with testing 33 locations, including inland bathing areas such as Windermere in the Lake District. They will carry on taking samples until September.
Bathing water quality in the North West has improved dramatically over the past two decades and the 2010 results show 90 per cent have passed the mandatory standard, improved from 30 per cent in 1990. Just over a quarter of those passing achieve the highest rating, as opposed to none back in 1990.
The Environment Agency has helped to direct some £8bn of water company investment to upgrade the country’s sewage system and reduce pollution in the past two decades, leading to huge improvements in bathing water quality.
And one of the best aids to providing cleaner water is something we all want more of – sunshine.
Rachel said: “UV rays are really good at cleaning the water and getting rid of germs. United Utilities actually install UV light facilities in their sewage plants because it is so effective.”
The firm has just applied to build one at its Kirkland Works in St Michael’s.
Businesses and home owners also have their own part to play including checking their waste waster is discharging into the correct drains. For example, household appliances should be connected to the foul sewer, not the surface drainage, so the waste is treated before entering our rivers and subsequently the sea.
One major factor which looks like it would affect the readings in Blackpool is the massive amount of regeneration work along the Promenade – but according to Rachel, that’s simply not the case.
She said: “There shouldn’t be any negative influence on the samples because of the Promenade works – the contractors are working with strict guidelines in place.
“However, we will not be taking samples from Blackpool North this season because the beach is closed to bathers.”
Tests will be taken at Fleetwood, Cleveleys, Bispham, Blackpool Central, Blackpool South, St Annes North and St Annes. You can see the results at www.environment-agency.gov.uk/bathingwaters.