Northumbrian Water

Clarifying Cullercoats Bathing Water

Cullercoats Collective are proactively working with numerous agencies to keep you up-to-date with the water quality at Cullercoats Bay.

January 2022 brought the conclusions from the current phase of Northumbrian Water WINEP Cullercoats Bathing Water Study. February 2022 then brought a Nationwide protest by Surfers Against Sewage on water quality and they focussed their efforts on Cullercoats. Every year since 2018, Cullercoats has received a poor water quality rating from the Environment Agency and we are on course to receive another later in 2022. This brings the community a lot of confusion, anxiety, bad press, rumours and mis-information. 

Cullercoats Collective were the driving force behind bringing all agencies with some responsibility for this issue into one room to get clarity about the issue, background, how water quality is measured, what actions have been taken and are being taken in the future in order to update with absolute facts to all who live, work and visit Cullercoats.

That meeting took place on 22 March 2022 (World Water Day) between Cullercoats Collective, Environment Agency, North Tyneside Council and all local Councillors, Northumbrian Water, Stantec, and Surfers Against Sewage. We also sent a live Q&A document to agencies in advance, collated from FAQs amongst the community, for answers from those agencies in plain English.

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Summary FAQs (new page)

Cullercoats Bathing Water Group Roles and Responsibilities

Background to Cullercoats Bathing Water and sampling

Summary of investigations into water quality

Areas to focus 2022 onwards

Public messaging: apps, ticker systems

Summary of 2021 conclusions and future actions from the meeting

Summary of faqs

We highly recommend you read the full article here, plus linked information in order to be fully informed on quite a complex issue. We have attempted to summarise FAQs here for a quick read and look to keep this updated, though do contact us at environment(@) if you feel any FAQ is not answered below or in the main article.


Answer provided by Northumbrian Water (NWL): 

An update was made to [the SAS petition] after the group accepted that it was inaccurate. We have no assets that discharge into Cullercoats Bay. The figure of 25 that was quoted related to EA pollution risk forecasts (see section about public messaging which explains what this means). These look at conditions such as rainfall levels, the tide, sunlight/UV and sample data to predict the risk of diffuse short term pollution for the area in general and does not relate specifically to our outfalls (again, we would point out that we do not have any outfalls in Cullercoats Bay).

Over time, the bathing water profile at Cullercoats shows that there has definitely been a deterioration at Cullercoats. See article about further information on what we know from current and historical Environment Agency sampling seasons at Cullercoats.

We also know, consistent with other bathing waters, that water quality particularly gets worse towards the end of the sampling season (school summer holidays), heavy rainfall, spring tides and other parameters (explained further in the article).

2017 was a bad year for Cullercoats and annual classifications from 2018 continue to be ‘poor’. 4 consecutive years of a poor water quality rating would have meant dedesignation at the end of 2022, (and not be able to designate again until 2026 earliest). Not being able to take a preseason sample in 2020 means that the 4-year clock was restarted in 2021!

Having a poor water quality means that the Environment Agency must show advice against bathing, it is not an indicator that swimming there will make you ill. The nature of Open Water Swimming is that it carries risks that are not present in a controlled environment such as a swimming pool.

Open water swimming has a higher risk of gastrointestinal illnesses (stomach bugs), which may cause diarrhoea and/or vomiting, as well as respiratory, skin, ear and eye infections, as there will always be micro-organisms and other hazards present. Everybody responds differently, see the Government Advice on Swim Healthy, and advice on Open Water Swimming from the Open Water Swimming Society and local Open Water Swimming groups.

Before you swim

There are a number of things you should consider including:

  • choosing the location carefully and avoid swimming in water with blue-green algal blooms or scums in freshwaters
  • covering cuts, scratches or sores with a waterproof plaster before swimming
  • wearing appropriate protective clothing such as a wetsuit, gloves or protective footwear

While you are swimming

Remember to:

  • avoid stream water running across the beach
  • try to avoid swallowing or splashing water into your mouth
  • observe local safety advice

After swimming

Following the swim, you can minimise the risk of becoming ill by:

  • cleaning your hands thoroughly with soap and water ensuring that all wet sand is removed from hands before eating or handling food
  • thoroughly cleaning cuts or abrasions using soap and water
  • handle your wetsuit with care after use. Rinse it with clean water as soon as is practicable after swimming. Clean with detergent and rinse as advised by the manufacturer. Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling or cleaning your wetsuit. Allow the suit to dry thoroughly before reuse.

We hope that by explaining the meaning behind the Environment Agency issued advice against bathing, the parameters considered in the Pollution Risk Forecasts (that trigger SAS app alerts and the physical ticker system on Cullercoats Beach), regular users of Cullercoats Harbour can make an informed decision.

To support day visitors, we have asked North Tyneside Council to improve physical signage and explanation on Cullercoats Beach about the Water Quality profile and sampling.

The conclusions drawn from the joint-Agency work to date – that the main cause of the water quality deterioration is contaminated groundwater, and is not from [NWL] network or assets – do not mean that efforts to improve the water quality of Cullercoats Bay have stopped.

• A disused council drainage culvert, the John Street Culvert, was capped off in 2011, having been found to be a pollution
source. It is a possibility that flows of groundwater still passing through this culvert may make their way to the sea.
• Northumbrian Water is preparing a c.£150,000 plan to divert that groundwater into its own combined sewer network, to see if this breaks the connection with the bathing water and makes an improvement.  It is hoped that this work can be completed this year.
• A sampling programme of ten main sampling locations, plus two groundwater sampling points has been developed to continuously monitor water quality.

As well as working with the Environment Agency and North Tyneside Council on this since 2017, [NWL] also took the voluntary decision with the EA to carry out a parallel investigation. The work we have carried out to date includes:

• Checks on all Northumbrian Water’s assets in the area, taking the opportunity to improve and futureproof the network where possible, such as coating pipework with lining to prevent future leaks.

• Investigations and analysis of likely sources and pathways of pollution, including DNA analysis, biodegradable tracing dye and water sampling.

• Customer properties checked for misconnections and pipework repaired where needed.

• Northumbrian Water has also checked council drainage and other assets, such as gullies, and carried out remedial work where public and private drainage and connections have been found to be faulty.

We need an annual Water Quality rating of “Excellent” to receive a Blue Flag and the Local Authority must apply for it. The water quality results for the previous four bathing seasons must also be sent along with the application for review. Realistically, if Cullercoats gets an ‘Excellent’ Water Quality Rating for 2023 (which is ambitious), the earliest we may get a Blue Flag would be 2027. Anything earlier would be a welcome surprise, of course. This does not suggest that Cullercoats Beach is treated any differently than any of our other Blue Flag Beaches. We have absolute confirmation from North Tyneside Council that Cullercoats is treated the same as other North Tyneside beaches.

You can read the [2021] Blue Flag criterion here.

Also note, for a Seaside Award, we need to provide a water quality rating of ‘sufficient’.

NWL: While setting target end dates can focus activity, these need to be appropriate to any problems that are identified. As we have seen, it can take time to identify the causes and solutions of a problem such as this, especially when the primary cause is difficult to ascertain and lies outside of [NWL] network and assets. However, we [NWL] are committed to continuing our efforts, in partnership with the local authority and the EA, to improve the Bathing Water quality at Cullercoats and to keeping the community and local stakeholders informed.

Cullercoats Collective: Hopefully the works by NWL to divert contaminated groundwater away from where it seems to collect in Cullercoats (John Street Culvert and Caves), will mean we start to see indicative water quality samples in 2022 that have suggested we have identified the location and issue for Cullercoats Bathing Water. This, however, still means we have not yet identified the cause of the contamination and not a permanent solution – it’s a process of elimination.

Cullercoats Bathing Water Working Group

Roles and Responsibilities

Establish and deliver a monitoring programme for each bathing water (e.g. sampling areas and times for Cullercoats). All bathing water designations can be sampled up to a maximum of 20 times per sampling season (running from 15th May to 30th September), Cullercoats is sampled the full 20 times, compared to 5 times for Longsands South and King Edwards Bay – due to the issues.

Classify each bathing water based on levels of Intestinal Enterococci (IE) and Escherichia coli (E.coli) (both bacteria types are found in intestines of animals and humans, indicating faeces present if found in bathing water samples) found in each sample under the following standards based on an average of from all samples over 4 years. To achieve ‘good’ or ‘sufficient’, E.coli and IE must be in 95th percentile.

While at Cullercoats Beach each visit, the Environment Agency also undertake appropriate monitoring for cyanobacteria (Blue green algae), macro-algae and marine phytoplankton, as well as carry out visual inspections for waste, including tarry residues, glass, plastic or rubber and will mark it for Local Authority (North Tyneside Council) to action. During the 2018-2021 Assessment Period, litter has not been assessed as being sufficient to be objectionable, however was observed as being present on 51% of visits

Investigate sources of pollution. Environment Agency became involved in the joint investigation with Northumbrian Water and North Tyneside Council (Bathing Water Working Group) as well as conducted The Environment Agency has carried out a desktop hydrogeological investigation to help us understand the source and pathway of the bacteria. The geology found at Cullercoats is unique to the area.  There is a major fault located along the southern boundary of the limestone which may indicate that the water in the limestone flows eastwards from Marden Quarry.

Environment Agency have continued to sample at Cullercoats outside of the usual sampling period to measure success of any improvement works (mentioned below).

Publish information 

If water quality rating is ‘poor’, Environment Agency must issue ‘semi-permanent’ advice against bathing – however this is only advice!

Environment Agency use a pollution risk forecasting model to issue more ‘proactive’ advice that takes into consideration rainfall, wind direction, tidal range during the sampling season. This risk forecasting informs Environment Agency’s ‘Swimfo’, the physical Ticker sign present on Cullercoats Beach,  and sends a notification to agencies such as North Tyneside Council and Surfers against Sewage. What is the main parameter to determine a risk of pollution in the model?  The biggest impact on the model is day of season (later in season, more warnings – as we often get high results at back end of the sampling season), tidal range (big spring tides), as well as rainfall within 1km radar of Cullercoats bathing water. Pollution risk forecast (and therefore notifications) are based on an algorithm, it does not monitor actual pollution incidents, or ‘raw sewage dumps’ into Cullercoats Bay, nor is it an indicator that you will become ill. See more about risk forecasting models and notifications later.

  • Warning and informing the public
  • Responsibility for public health and safety (e.g. ‘closing the beach’ if necessary – however we would imagine that more than the current issue would prompt NTC to do that).
  • To gain a Blue Flag award, the beach must have an ‘Excellent’ water quality rating (‘Sufficient’ for Seaside Award) and the local authority must apply for these awards.

In the event of a pollution incident The sewerage undertaker must, if necessary, promptly consult—

(a)the appropriate agency, and

(b)the local authority that controls the bathing water. 

Northumbrian Water (NWL) have been investigating Cullercoats since 2011.

2012 – NWL found an old, disused John Street Culvert directly discharging onto the beach/cliff face (behind Dove Marine Laboratory) so was capped.

2016 – Marden quarry surface water separation scheme was completed

2017 – NWG volunteered to undertake an investigation into the deterioration in bathing water quality at Cullercoats as part of the AMP7 (7th round of 5-year funding covering 2020-2025) WINEP. Cullercoats Bathing Water Quality group formed (consisting of Environment Agency, Stantec, Northumbrian Water, North Tyneside Council)

2021 – AMP7 WINEP launched.

  • Phase 1 (Gap Analysis) – completed in December 2020
  • Phase 2 (Investigation) – completed in November 2021.

Background to water quality in Cullercoats

Cullercoats is the only one out of 34 bathing waters in the North East not with a sufficient (Marsden), good (e.g. Seaham Hall, Newbiggin South) or excellent water quality classification, and has a had a ‘poor’ rating since 2018.

Should this happen for five consecutive years, the bathing water is then dedesignated and would have meant not being a designated bathing water again until 2026This would have been inevitable following another anticipated ‘poor’ rating at the end of the sampling season in 2022, however, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that there was not a sampling season in 2020, resulting in the clock ‘resetting’ and we have four years to find a solution and avoid de-designation.

Sampling times and areas to test hypotheses

Since 2018, the Environment Agency has taken samples from Bathing water have been taken from, Marden Quarry inlet and outfall (to test a hypothesis that sand/limestone in the area was a pathway to pollution from the Quarry Outfall), Browns point outfall, Bedrock pool (to see if something coming out of outfall and ‘pooling’ – it isn’t), North Runner (not all of the time), South side caves with ground-water fed pools (which almost always has elevated levels of bacteria which EA believe is a pathway to bacteria into Cullercoats).

Northumbrian Water have and Stantec continued to sample weekly, beyond EA sampling at 10 fixed locations: external and internal from caves, pools at caves, areas EA test, inside and outside of the piers, John Street Culvert since April 2021 until around November.

They found elevated levels at Marden Quarry Outfall, John Street Culvert and Pools at the caves. (nothing was found at piers so have discounted the Marden Quarry outfall pollution pathway hypothesis so focussed on John Street Culvert and South Caves).

What we know from sampling

Cullercoats particularly fails for IE (Intestinal Entercocci). IE persists longer in groundwater than E-coli (50 days), suggesting also E.Coli could mean coming from a ‘fresher’ source, and IE from an ‘older’ source. If ratings were based solely on E-Coli then Cullercoats may have a better rating. See FAQs for Would this make me ill? 

We know that sampling gets worse towards the end of the sampling season (around first week of school summer holidays), however this is common for all bathing waters. 

There has definitely been a deterioration at Cullercoats. Things are getting worse at Cullercoats even though the bar to achieve Blue Flag has got higher.

Investigations into water quality in Cullercoats

The AMP7 WINEP Bathing Water Study had two drivers of investigation: 

    • Understand cause of deterioration in bathing water quality
    • Assessment of water company action to achieve Good/Excellent status

Key Activities from WINEP Bathing Water Study investigations:

  • DNA analysis carried out to identify likely sources of pollution. Bird, human and dog markers identified. 
  • More than 100 properties checked and over 20 misconnected pipes repaired
  • 3,500m of pipe inspected with cameras and defects fixed
  • 150m of pipe coated with a special lining to prevent leaks
  • Interceptor storm tunnel and local rising mains inspected with no issues found
  • Suspected ‘pollution pathways’ inspected using a special dye and no trace found on beach
  • 80 highways gullies checked for misconnections and pipework failures – 12 sealed 
  • More than 900 water samples taken from both within the bay and locations around the surrounding catchment
  • Significant investment in WINEP study to investigate likely causes. Further plans to divert culvert into local sewer network. 
  • Understanding the geology and impacts from groundwater with new boreholes drilled and sampled

Key Recommendations from Phase 1:

  • Continue a programme of sampling at fixed locations
  • Connectivity surveys of beachfront facilities (such as toilets), including assessments of integrity of local sewer network 
  • Undertake further exploratory works at the John Street culverted watercourse to confirm the extents of the culvert and to identify the source of inflows 
  • Undertake trial hole/borehole investigations to study the groundwater levels and take samples for bacterial analysis.

Phase 2 Study Aims:

  • Regular sampling programme 
  • Investigations at John Street Culvert.
  • NWG network investigations 
  • Exploratory surveys of Cullercoats Caves 
  • Boreholes to sample groundwater

Report prepared with conclusions from Phase 2 Study in November 2021:

  • Investigations completed found no evidence of NWG’s assets being a primary cause for the deterioration in bathing water quality 
  • Evidence points towards contaminated groundwater likely to be the primary cause of the bathing water failings 
  • Production of a GIS workspace that can be accessed by all (no specialist software required), holding records of investigations completed

KEY FINDING: There is a correlation between high levels of bacteria at John Street Culvert and also at South Caves. When seeing a high level of Culvert, we see high level at Caves too. This infers that both are affected by the same issue.

John Street Culvert

Unsure of its history given no indication of it in historical maps of its purpose. the Culvert is sandstone so not watertight, upstream there is a concrete wall where its blanked. This Culvert was capped off in 2012. Despite this, high levels of bacteria are found here and investigations recently found 0.2litres of groundwater p/s (about 6mill litres in a year) so was a fairly significant flow, capped at downstream in 2012, samples recently still had very high levels of bacteria.

Given it has no access, the Culvert is believed to recharge from groundwater through the porous brickwork. NWL looked into the immediate area around the culvert (to see if issue is localised) and made some minor repairs but no improvement – so the cause of the issue is still feel like its likely further afield.

Work can be done to divert the contaminated water away from the Culvert, and therefore the beach.

Comes down twice a week and drained the culvert for processing at Howdon, finding that its also always at the same level too. EA were sampling this water, and results are generally lowering at around 20parts p100ml (but of course, this is early days).

Future actions for John Street Culvert

Draining the Culvert every week would be a temporary solution, therefore we need to explore ways to stop this groundwater from being collected in the council-owned Culvert. Such as, Can it be lined with something non-porous?

Northumbrian Water have proposed diverting publicly owned pipes into their network – and diverting John Street Culvert away.

South Caves groundwater

Cullercoats has an issue with contaminated groundwater from samples taken from around the caves in Cullercoats. Groundwater is perfectly normal, and it is normal to have runoff from the land into the sea, however, groundwater can carry bacteria such as E.Coli and IE as tested in coastal bathing waters.

The pooling water often found at low tide outside of the caves is likely to be groundwater – not seawater, which is the source of the worse water quality samples taken during the assessment period.

The WINEP looked at the caves in more detail. At the back of the caves are concrete walls put in for safety and structural reasons. Investigators drilled behind this wall and saw it was ‘wet’, finding evidence of groundwater inflow behind this cave – samples of this water could not be taken, however it helps to confirm ‘pollution pathways’.

We must protect our groundwater from pollution, but first, we need to know where that pollution is coming from.

Public Messaging

Given the amount of confusion around Cullercoats Bathing Water, we hope that our efforts to clarify here remedy that, and we look to keep the community updated, with complete transparency, any updates that the Collective gain from our seat at some of the Cullercoats Bathing Water Workgroup meetings. 

The physical ticker sign on Cullercoats beach, and EA’s ‘Swimfo’ – is linked to the EA’s pollution risk forecasting model that is an algorithm based on rainfall, tidal range and our pre-existing water quality rating. 

Should the model anticipate a higher risk of a levels based on these parameters during the sampling season only, EA send email out to everyone (including North Tyneside Council and Surfers Against Sewage), text to the ticker system. This explains why the sign isn’t always ‘switched on’.

Northumbrian Water also have a beach alert system that can alert SAS and can do so year round. 

SAS can help to make that published info easier to digest and understand, however the information in what goes behind these algorithms must also be taken into account:

  • that it is based on heavy rainfall events and big tides and time in the season (and towards the end of the sampling season, we have the Summer Equinox period – where we have one of the biggest tidal ranges of the year)
  • that we know the issue is almost certainly, predominately, stemming from contaminated groundwater that is situated by Cullercoats Caves.

We noted the distinct lack of physical public signage to communicate this knowledge outside of online technical reports and Government Websites that the average swimmer or bather can see to make their own informed decision – and this was taken by NTC as an action moving forward (and Cullercoats Collective have offered their assistance to improve this for the community). Cullercoats Collective also advocated for making reports publicly accessible and promoted sharing data.

2021 Conclusions and future actions

  • Investigations completed found no evidence of [Northumbrian Water]’s assets being a primary cause for the deterioration in bathing water quality 
  • Evidence points towards contaminated groundwater likely to be the primary cause of the bathing water failings 
  • Production of a GIS workspace that can be accessed by all (no specialist software required), holding records of investigations completed

Communications between partners in the Cullercoats Bathing Water Working Group as well as out to public should improve. Better data sharing through a GIS workspace, and Cullercoats Collective can attend future working group meetings (sitting 3 times within the bathing water season, and 3-4 times outside of bathing water season) and help disseminate FAQs back to the community.

North Tyneside Council promised to improve physical signage for ‘day’ visitors to Cullercoats Beach. Explaining via signage on the beach the state of the water quality in Cullercoats, what it means, and work that is being undertaken to tackle it. Cullercoats Collective are happy to work alongside North Tyneside Council with this. 

Nothumbrian Water aim to divert contaminated water from John St Culvert away from the beach. Further investigation into cause of this contaminated groundwater collected at John St Culvert and Cullercoats Caves, to treat it at scene. 

Environment Agency propose a further Hydrogeological study looking at the geology of fault line from Marden Quarry heading east and develop a conceptual site model to further understand whats going on underground with local geology. This could lead to proposing a bacteriological sample survey (e.g. drilling additional boreholes etc) coming at exceptional cost, but first see what diversion of John St Culvert into NWL system works first.

Environment Agency, as the Cullercoats Bathing Water Working Group, have publicly stated that work will continue until we see the desired improvements in quality.

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