A swimming ban is in place across north and west Clare due to increased bacterial levels in the water quality, in line with HSE guidance for public health.
This is the second swimming ban in the space of 2 weeks for some County Clare beaches, and follows on from intense rainfall over recent days. Met Eireann issued a yellow rain warning, and accumulations of between 20mm and 40mm were forecast. The intensity of the rainfall has led to runoff from farmland and septic tanks entering local rivers which then discharged their pollution load into the affected coastal waters, resulting in significantly elevated levels of toxic E. coli bacteria.
The four affected beaches, Lahinch, White Strand Miltown Malbay, Spanish Point and Kilkee, are all Blue Flag beaches , as a result of their excellent bathing water quality. Given that this is the second swimming ban in such a short space of time it doesn’t bode well for retaining the Blue Flag designation if this trend continues, which would be a huge loss for the local community.
The source would appear to predominantly be diffuse agricultural pollution  washing off farmland carrying bacterial Escherichia coli (E. coli) from animal slurry into the nearby waters, in addition to malfunctioning septic tanks. This puts enormous strain on local water sports businesses which rely on clean water to operate, such as the local surf schools. It also impacts on local tourism, which has already been hugely impacted as a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns.
The intensity of the rainfall in recent days is a significant contributor to the pollution event, and climate models show that this will be an increasing occurrence with shifting weather patterns in the coming years, where we’ll be seeing much more intense rainfall over short periods of time. The west of Ireland is well accustomed to rain, but the rain pattern is shifting, and it is this that is exacerbating the problem.
The agricultural regulations which are in place for the protection of water quality, such as controls on slurry spreading, are clearly not functioning in this case. The reason for this is likely twofold: they are not sufficient to prevent this type of pollution; and they are not being enforced rigorously enough.
This problem has not arisen at these beaches in recent years, with a general trend of excellent water quality. The Department of Agriculture should be looking to see how they can better protect the water quality with these intense rainfall events. The agricultural regulations are not doing enough to protect national water quality, with approximately 50% of our rivers being polluted, and 62% of our estuaries , often as a result of agricultural runoff. This pollution event clearly shows that more needs to be done to improve that, particularly when it poses a public health risk and has such major impacts on local tourism.
This is a widespread issue, with no quick fix, but it is vital that the Department of Agriculture acknowledge the role that agricultural regulation plays in this, and review their regulations and enforcement in light of shifting weather patterns. 2020 has been a challenging year for everyone, and this may be the final straw for many struggling businesses, and for families doing their best to holiday safely in Ireland.
Dr. Elaine McGoff, Natural Environment Officer with An Taisce:
“It’s the worst possible time for this to happen, when Irish people are trying to salvage the summer as best they can, and now they find they can’t even swim in the local waters, and businesses can’t operate as they need to. The economic and social impacts from this sort of an event are considerable, not to mention the ecological impacts on our already beleaguered marine wildlife.”
“The vast majority of farmers are doing everything by the book, but the problem is that the regulations themselves aren’t fit for purpose. The responsibility for this lies with the Department of Agriculture.”