Why is Heacham's bathing water poor?

Why is Heacham's bathing water poor?
Heacham's bathing water has been classified as 'poor' since 2021

A meeting with Anglian Water and the Environment Agency on Wednesday 17th April sought to address the poor bathing water quality in Heacham.

The first of two meetings focused on the poor bathing water quality at Heacham took place at 2PM on Wednesday 17th April and was attended by around 30 individuals. Adam Worley, Strategic Recreational Water Quality Manager and Linda Elliott, Regional Engagement Programme Lead from Anglian Water panelled the meeting alongside representatives from the Environment Agency. The panel provided information on the ‘poor’ classification of Heacham’s bathing water, the reasons for the classification and what they have been doing to investigate and address it.

Designated bathing water is an area of water that has been approved by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in accordance with the Bathing Water Regulations Act 2013. Designated bathing waters are sampled and tested weekly by the Environment Agency during the bathing water season, between 15th May and 30th September, and the results inform a classification for the quality of the water. There are 4 classes; ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘poor’. If a bathing water is classified as ‘excellent’, the owner can apply for a Blue Flag award. If a bathing water is classified as ‘poor’, such as in Heacham, signage is required to alert citizens. Heacham has been classified as ‘poor’ since 2021. If a designated bathing water is classed as ‘poor’ for 5 consecutive years it is de-designated.

Many factors can affect bathing water quality. Intestinal Enterococci (IE) and Escherichia coli (EC) are the bacteria that are tested for in the samples. Animal and human faeces contain these bacteria and there is evidence that seaweed and sediment can provide an environment to sustain them. Other factors that can impact the levels of IE and EC are agriculture, highways, litter, sewer capacity and overflows.

The “limiting factor” to Heacham and Hunstanton’s bathing water quality is not EC, but IE. Mr Worley from Anglian Water said that “if only the E-coli was measured, Heacham would have a better classification”. This is largely thanks to the UV light disinfection system at Heacham Water Recycling Centre, which operates year-round to largely reduce the bacteria present in the water waste.

When calculating the classification of each designated bathing water, data from samples from the previous 3 years is used. This means that, even if bacterial counts are low enough to class as ‘good’ this year, if the count was high for the 3 years prior, the bathing water is unlikely to be classified as ‘good’.

Results from the water samples take 2-5 days to produce, meaning that the bathing water classification each day is not necessarily a daily forecast. However, the Environment Agency use Pollution Risk Forecasting to make a daily forecast of bathing water quality where the water can be affected by factors such as rain, tide or wind. These forecasts aim to provide a flag on days that the water is higher risk than its annual classification average, as calculated by an algorithm instead of samples, meaning the forecast can be produced quickly and on a daily basis. The forecasts are made at 08:30 each day and are posted on the Swimfo website. However, the Environment Agency do not include data on storm overflows in this calculation.

Anglian Water and the Environment Agency explained how they have conducted trace surveys, which involved releasing a very concentrated amount of a non-naturally occurring material to mimic the release of E-coli. They were then able to see where the traces moved to, to gain insight as to where the bacteria might move to and from in our waterways.

The Environment Agency have also conducted DNA analysis on some water samples from Heacham, which aims to identify the most likely sources of the high levels of bacteria found in the water. They found that “seabird markers were significant”, as well as dog markers being present. They commented how “one gram of dog faeces can contaminate 100 cubic grams of seawater”. One resident mentioned how there has always been a high presence of seabirds and dogs, so queried how this could be the main contributing factor to a change in water quality. Mr Worley from Anglian Water explained that the water quality may not have significantly changed, but since 2016, the way it is measured has changed; Intestinal Enterococci now has to be counted as well as E-coli.

WEB Heacham Beach Anglian Water and the Environment Agency say bird faeces is the main contributor to the high levels of bacteria in Heacham's bathing water

The representatives from the Environment Agency explained how they plan to continue performing DNA surveys in Heacham in order to produce more reliable results. They will also continue to “provide information to property owners around maintenance of private foul arrangements”, to ensure pollution prevention from places such as the local holiday parks. They endeavour to continue investigating any pollution incidents and potential bacterial sources reported to them. They encourage residents with any environmental concerns to contact them on 0800 80 70 60.

Whilst many locals may have expected the meeting to address the well-documented sewage dumping, comments on this topic were kept brief. One resident who directly asked what is being done to address the sewage dumping issue received a response of ‘Anglian Water is in the process of setting up multi-agency groups to minimise the impact’. Anglian Water noted how Heacham Water Recycling Centre does not have any storm overflows as the storm tanks are ‘blind’ and he emphasised how the UV filter at Heacham ensures that no significant levels of bacteria remain in any matter that leaves the site. Whilst this is good news, Anglian Water did not address the 65.63 hours of spills that occurred in our neighbouring town, Hunstanton, in 2023, other than mentioning that they plan to implement “further spill reduction at the South End Road TPS”. Mr Worley did mention how samples found that the levels of the bacteria at Hunstanton were significantly higher 24-48 hours after high levels of rainfall, but he did not explain how this could be attributed to the storm overflows that occur in Hunstanton following the high rainfall.

WEB Hunstanton Sea Anglian Water discharged sewage from two outlets in Hunstanton for 65.63 hours in 2023.

The ‘poor’ bathing water quality remains a contentious and complex issue. In May’s print edition of Town & Around I have written an extended piece called ‘Flooding in our fields and sewage in our sea’, where I analysed data from different sources, focusing on the flooding that has been occurring in North-West Norfolk and on the recently released sewage spill data from the Environment Agency. It can be found on page 16 of the magazine and I hope that it makes for an interesting read.

On May 3rd Town & Around was contacted by the Environment Agency Communications East with a request to add the following information to our article:

  1. One gram of dog faeces can contaminate 100 cubic metres of seawater, at a high enough concentration to impact water quality.
  2. The plan to continue performing DNA surveys in Heacham in order to produce more reliable results is subject to securing funding.

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