As Covid-19 restrictions loosen, the stage is set for a familiar site to return to Grand Canal Dock basin — thrill-seeking youngsters diving off bridges into the deep, cold water.
Alongside the young swimmers, passersby might also see some water-based activity companies — offering the likes wakeboarding and kayaking — that operate in the area, some of which are beginning to resume operations.
But recently released data collated by Waterways Ireland on bacteria levels in the water at Grand Canal Dock shows that the water there is often badly polluted and unsafe.
Throughout much of January and February 2020, the water quality was recorded as poor.
“There is intensive sampling to monitor this and to try to provide for Dublin, a pristine body of water,” says Máirín Ó Cuireáin, Dublin Docklands development manager with Waterways Ireland.
That sampling is communicated to the water sports activities companies who then suspend or move their activities if necessary, she says.
Despite the popularity of the Grand Canal Dock basin with teenagers, swimming is prohibited, says Ó Cuireáin.
Back in June 2014, Clodagh Sheehy wrote in the Irish Independent that Rachel Snedden, mother of Eamon Hafdallah, was concerned that her son had developed a serious skin condition due to bacteria he came into contact with while swimming at Grand Canal Dock.
Snedden said that she knew her son swam in the dock regularly but she wasn’t aware of the swimming ban, although she was later told that there are signs displaying the rules.
The basin, which spans 25 acres, was originally built in the mid-18th century to accommodate 150 ocean-going vessels, and was one of the largest canal docks in the British Isles at the time, according to the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage website.
On Sunday, on a quick stroll around the dock there was no visible signage from the stretch of the basin from the MacMahon Bridge, past Gallery Quay apartments and past the angled red sticks, running down towards Hanover Quay.
But Ó Cuireáin says that there are signs up at three locations on the dock, at Hanover Quay, at the Sea Locks and at the Slipway.
She sent photos of two of the signs, which show a red line through a person swimming. One of them also is above two other signs and has the words “no swimming”.
She says she thinks most locals know you are not meant to swim there. “We engage regularly with local community groups and we talk about swimming,” says Ó Cuireáin.
“We have talked to them about the fact that at times there can be risks there,” she says.
Swimming at the dock is prohibited under the Canals Act 1988 Bye-Laws, which say: “No person shall … bathe or swim in any lock, harbour or dock on the canals, except with the permission of the Commissioners.”
Two water-sports activity providers, Surfdock and Wakedock are licensed, so they have permission to use the dock, says Ó Cuireáin.
“The water quality here is tested regularly and we run activities in line with what the results of those tests dictate,” says Colin Harris, managing director of Surfdock. “If we have to stop our activities we do so. Thankfully the need for that is extremely rare.”
What is Causing Poor Water Quality?
The main cause of pollution in Grand Canal Dock is a surface water outfall pipe, which discharges into the inner basin, says Ó Cuireáin.
Bird droppings may contribute to the problems but to a lesser extent, she says.
“Water quality data indicates high levels of pollutants at Grand Canal Dock,” says Reg McCabe, public relations officer with the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, Dublin Branch.
“Test results released recently show high concentrations of pollutants E. coli and enterococci, suggesting the presence of faecal contamination,” he says.
On some occasions, the concentrations were found to be more than 12 times the established safe limit, he says.
When that happens, according to a spokesperson for Waterways Ireland, any water sports normally allowed on the dock are stopped.
Not A Beach
Waterways Ireland, Dublin City Council and Irish Water are investigating the feasibility of relocating the pipe out of Grand Canal Dock to resolve this issue in the longer term, says Ó Cuireáin. “People are really actively dedicated to improving this [water quality] and making it a real resource for Dublin,” she says.
Some would like to see a timeline for those works.
“We have known for some time that Grand Canal Dock water pollution is linked to the action of a stormwater outfall discharging into the harbour,” says McCabe.
“Despite numerous promises and commitments over the decades, this problem has never been resolved,” he says.
Ó Cuireáin says that Grand Canal Dock is not a beach, so even if they eventually achieve the pristine water quality she is hoping for, it still won’t be suitable to be a designated bathing area, she says.
For one thing, she says, the water is very deep in places, there is no safe access in and out and there are boats that use the dock too.
That is not to say that alterations could not be made in the future, to make part of it into a pool, but there are no plans for that currently. “Potentially we could look at a model like Copenhagen in the long term,” she says.
Harris from Surfdock says he’d welcome open-water swimming in Grand Canal Dock. But “if you look at the problems the baths in Clontarf have faced I can see why it could be a problem”, said Harris.