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Wild Swimming in Europe: Freshwater matters

June 20, 2011

Wild Swimming: from (Kate Rew / Wild Swim)

Wild swimming in rivers, lakes and streams is increasing in popularity across Europe, as people discover (or, perhaps, rediscover) the pleasure of swimming in freshwaters: unaffected by chlorinated water, stark lights and tightly regimented lanes.

Last week, the findings of the most recent European Union Bathing Water Directive (data here) were published by the European Environment Agency, showing the cleanliness of over 22,000 freshwater and saltwater swimming spots across Europe, from inner city ponds to rural rivers, shown in the Guardian data-blog map below (click through to the interactive version):

This data can also be explored through these interactive sites:

However the news for freshwater wild swimmers isn’t positive, according to the report:

“In 2010, 90.2 % of inland bathing waters in the European Union were compliant with the mandatory values during the bathing season, a figure 0.8 percentage points higher than in the previous year. The number of inland bathing waters complying with the more stringent guide values decreased by 10.2 percentage points compared to 2009, reaching 60.5 %”

(n.b. guide values describe the standard for “excellent” bathing water quality set by the EU)

This means that c.10% of  European freshwater swimming sites does not reach the minimum safety standards set by the EU, potentially posing a health hazard, and serving as a worrying indicator for the health of the wider ecosystem, whilst c.40% do not reach the ‘excellent‘ guide values of water quality.

What is the EU Bathing Water Directive?

The original Bathing Water Directive was adopted by the EU in 1975, and came into force in 1976.  It aims to safeguard public health by monitoring the water quality of aquatic environments (both freshwater and saltwater) in which people bathe.  Member states of the European Union submit data on measures of water quality, such as chemical pollutants for over 20,000 sites across Europe every 3-4 years.  The most recent report describes the water quality for bathing waters in 2010.  The terms of the directive are due to get stricter in 2012, when levels of bacteria including E.coli will be added to the assessment criteria.

Loch Ness, Scotland: for the adventurous wild swimmer (photo R St.John)

Why freshwater biodiversity matters to wild swimmers

The drop in inland water quality isn’t only a problem for wild swimmers, it is an indication of the wider health of European freshwater ecosystems, and so has wide ranging implications.  Healthy, functioning freshwater ecosystems provide a range of ecosystem services, including clean water provision and wildlife habitat alongside recreational services such as wild swimming and fishing.  In other words: clean, healthy freshwater ecosystems are crucially important in maintaining human and wildlife populations.  The presence of high freshwater biodiversity levels (i.e. the range of plant and animal life in our rivers and lakes) is not only an indicator of a healthy ecosystem, but intrinsically important in maintaining this state – for the benefit of everyone.

This is the underlying message of our work through the BioFresh project, that despite their ecological, economic and recreational importance, freshwater ecosystems are often overlooked by policy makers, the media and the public.  This is – in part – due to a lack of reliable data to effectively show the changes taking place in freshwater biodiversity – a shortfall the project aims to address through the creation of enhanced biodiversity databases, modelling visualisation tools.

With the growing popularity of wild swimming across Europe, we hope that more people will become interested in (and maybe help conserve!) the freshwater ecosystems in which they swim.  There are plenty of links and resources on freshwater ecosystems to follow through the BioFresh website.

Wild swimming resources

Interactive map of wild swimming spots in Britain from the Outdoor Swimming Society (link) and (below):

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