Another eight countries achieved excellent quality values above the EU average: Malta (97%), Croatia (95%), Greece (93%), Germany (88%), Portugal (87%), Italy (85%), Finland (83%) and Spain (83%).
In the early 1990s, only around 60% of sites had excellent quality water, while 70% met minimum standards.
Every year, the European Environment Agency compiles bathing water data gathered by local authorities at more than 22,000 sites across the 27 European Union member states, Croatia and Switzerland, and measuring levels of bacteria from sewage and livestock. More than two thirds of sites are coastal beaches, with rivers and lakes making up the remainder.
To monitor the quality of bathing waters, laboratories analyse levels of certain types of bacteria, including intestinal enterococci and Escherichia coli bacteria. These may indicate the presence of pollution, mainly from sewage or livestock waste. Sites are classified as compliant with mandatory values, compliant with the more stringent guidelines, or non-compliant.
Bathing water in Europe needs to comply with standards set down in the 2006 Bathing Water Directive which updates and simplifies previous legislation. It has to be implemented by EU Member States by December 2014.