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The United States is not the only developed nation plagued by summertime beach closures, even after decades of laws requiring treatment of sewage. Hundreds of beaches in England do not not make the grade as well, according to The Guardian newspaper.

England’s Teignmouth town beach during happier times.
By Snapshots Of The Past [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

On July 1, EarthDesk reported on the failure of the Clean Water Act  to meet its national policy goal of “fishable and swimmable” waters, or even to reduce significantly the number of beach closures in the years since EPA has been keeping its beach closure database.  It is of course no comfort our cousin across the Atlantic is suffering the same pain, but it is remarkable how similar are the plights of the two nations.

Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are one significant cause of the contamination of both American and British beaches. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, CSOs are:

. . . designed to collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. . . During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, however, the wastewater volume in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or treatment plant. For this reason, combined sewer systems are designed to overflow occasionally and discharge excess wastewater directly to nearby streams, rivers, or other water bodies.

The Guardian reported on the problem at one popular local swimming beach, Teignmouth town beach in Devon. It could have been any of hundreds of beaches in the U.S.

Teignmouth town beach fronts a popular Victorian seaside town. Its issues, Smart says [Nick Smart, a technical specialist with the UK’s Environment Agency], are legion. “You’ve got some CSO problems,” says Smart: during sudden, severe rainfall, when sewers are overwhelmed, Britain’s 31,000-odd Combined Sewer Overflows, the legacy of an outdated system that made no distinction between sewage and storm-water, discharge both types through combined outfall pipes. This may stop sewage backing up into people’s homes – but it also directs it, mixed with storm-water, into streams, rivers and eventually, the sea.

Another shared problem is non-point source pollution, termed “diffuse pollution” in England, which our EPA defines as a flow of pollutants not collected by discreet conveyances, such as pipes and trenches, that result from “land runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, seepage or hydrologic modification.” Again, the Guardian story could have been lifted from almost any American waterway.

In Teignmouth, says Smart, “there’s also what we call urban diffuse pollution. And dogs. And seagulls. And across the estuary here, you’ve got the problems associated with a vast agricultural hinterland, right up on to Dartmoor: a lot of dairy cattle, manure, slurry, agricultural run-off. So it’s a whole mix of issues.

It is difficult to pry predictions out of EPA or the UK’s Environment Agency but the oft quoted Nick Smart was dour about the future of certain waters in his bailiwick:

Some beaches, concedes Smart, “we will never get to Good or Excellent. There are simply too many impacts.”

Here at EarthDesk we have the highest expectations for all of America’s beaches.

Happily, swimmers in both nations have excellent citizen organizations to which they can turn. In the U.S., the Natural Resources Defense Council publishes its annual Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches.  In England, the Marine Conservation Society publishes the Good Beach Guide.