Last week I stole a few days from the lab to head to the UK Bathing Water conference. You may have read recently that the quality of bathing waters across the UK maintained their high standards in the 2017 bathing water season (May-September). This was particularly impressive, as far as summers go 2017 was pretty wet and water quality is often worse in wet weather.
All is not peachy in the UK bathing water world though with 20 sites failing to achieve a minimum quality standard. This makes UK the 2nd worst in Europe for the quality of our bathing waters. So I was pretty interested on how the conference was going to go. I was also incredibly excited to be attending the microbial source tracking workshop run by the Environment Agency.
After eventually making it to Wrexham, and a quick tour of the impressive Pontcysyllte aquaduct it was time for the microbial source tracking workshop and some dinner. The main thing to come out of the MST workshop was that MST alone cannot give you all the answers and in the water industry we currently do not have the knowledge to carry-out or interpret MST investigations to the highest standard.
The conference was attended by a fantastic mix of professions from the Environment Agency, beach managers, the RNLI, water industry professionals, tourism professionals and of course academics. There were so many interesting talks, but as usual the things I know least about interested me most. I was blown away by the investment in tourism in Wales and the incredible advertising campaigns that are being run. Next year is the “Year of the Sea”, a year spent celebrating the epic coasts of Wales. I can’t help but feel that Northumberland is missing a trick with the equally (probably more because I am biased) impressive coast line.
My other big take-away from the conference was the importance of how environmental professionals communicate with the public. It is probably another blog post in itself, but over the 2 day conference it was a reoccurring theme. For example, how many people take notice of signs? A lot of money has been spent on placing signs at designated beaches informing the public of the water quality. Unfortunately, most people pay no attention to the signs, some because they access the beach by a different route and some because, well why would you? There is also the issue of whether or not a sign saying the water quality is poor will actually deter people from using the beach or water. There was some hints that apps, such as the Safer Seas app, are being used more frequently and might be a worthwhile direction for beach managers. Another good example was given by Jojo Mains from the RNLI, who are trying to communicate safety and accident prevention messages to the public. Having realised that just telling people what to do was having almost no effect, the RNLI are using some different methods to ‘nudge’ people into being more safety conscious at sea (A reference to the awesome book ‘Nudge’ by Richard Thaler). A great example of this is working with pubs to put safety messages or local stories of people loosing their lives unnecessarily at sea on the side of a pint glass.
The final environmental communication point that has been on my mind for a long time is that the British public don’t seem willing to pay for environmental improvements. Now, that is a huge generalisation, but when water companies do their survey (Usually every 5 years) and ask customers, for example, if they would be willing to pay a few quid more on their water bill to improve say water quality at beach x. The resounding answer is NO! (Although there are a couple of examples where customers have said yes we will pay that but not a lot). There could be a number of reasons for this. The English public might be forgiven for not wanting to pay a private water company more money – after all what guarantees do the public have that it won’t just make shareholder’s purses bulge a bit more? Perhaps the public do not see the value in the environment or good water quality, value from tourism might be more obvious than from things like ecosystem services. As environmentalists we need to understand the motivation for the negative responses on willingness to pay surveys, are they just a rebellion against the organisation asking the questions? Is it something deeper routed in our psyche? or just like donating to Wikipedia, maybe we won’t appreciate it until it is too late.