Is it safe to swim in Lake Ontario? From June to September every year, we are asked this question more than any other. It seems to be the number one "environmental" issue on people's minds when the thermometre soars.
We could answer the question with a "yes" and move on, but where is the fun in that? This summer, we want you to know everything there is to know about your area beaches and to share your knowledge with friends, family, and neighbours. Thus, we bring you ....
7 Beach Revelations to Share With Your Friends and Family This Summer
1. Yes, it IS safe to swim in Lake Ontario. Sort of.
Lake Ontario is a really big place. With over 12,000 kilometres of shoreline, you cannot definitively label the entire lake "safe" or "unsafe". On any given day, about 75% of the lake's beaches are deemed safe for swimming. That makes things sound pretty good. Of 100 beaches we looked at for this newsletter , fifty-five have already failed the Ministry of the Environment's test for a "clean beach". That makes things sound pretty bad. Statistics - even the ones that we compile - are misleading.
The best answer to the question is this: Most of the time, in most communities, there is somewhere safe to swim - so there's no need to fear Lake Ontario. All that said, most communities have at least one beach in dire need of protection and we need to do more to address bacteria pollution.
2. There are two kinds of beaches in Ontario: official and unofficial. You should be able to swim at both. We only have data for one.
Ontario has two kinds of beaches*. There are official beaches, with designated swimming areas, lifeguards, and regular sampling programs ruled by the Ministry of Health. There are unofficial beaches, which have no lifeguards, no monitoring programs, and sometimes do not even have names. These are protected from bacteria pollution by Ministry of the Environment rules. All beaches are supposed to be open at least 95% of the summer, but we only have water quality data for "official" beaches. Whenever we report on beach statistics, we are only talking about the "official" beaches.
3. You have a LOT of beaches to choose from in the Lake Ontario Watershed. Some are truly stunning.
There are more than 100 recognized beaches in our watershed. They range from urban oases like Bluffer's Beach in Scarborough to popular-and-beautiful getaway beaches like Sandbanks. Some are sandy and some are rocky. Some have algae and fish and other wild characteristics, and some are manicured or treated (Sunnyside Enclosure). Whatever your preference, there is a beach for everyone, including world-class freshwater swimming holes. So have pride.
4. The beaches are posted more this year than last. But that doesn't mean the lake is more or less safe.
Lake Ontario's beaches have been posted more this summer than they were this time last year - nearly twice as often. Temperatures have also been much higher than last year and water levels much lower. A whole host of factors could explain the difference, so the rise in beach postings does not necessarily mean that the lake is getting dirtier. It does mean that we need to pay attention, though, because it is hot outside the beaches are not always safe refuges. One posted beach should prompt questions. An increase in the number of posted beaches should prompt a lot of questions.
5. If you only think about one environmental, cultural, or economic issue this summer, it should be "beaches".
Clean beaches are not a luxury. They satisfy some very basic, fundamental needs for society. Beaches provide a free, accessible respite for people on hot days. They provide gathering places for families and friends. They are natural assets for local economies.
Beaches are also excellent indicators of how our democratic institutions are holding up. Which communities are stuck with polluted beaches? Which communities admit they infrastructure problems? And which ones try to cover them up? No one "owns" your local beach - it is yours. If there is an ongoing or chronic problem - like a dirty beach - there's a good chance that some community's interests are being sacrificed for another's. Which brings us to ...
6. When a beach is posted, an act of theft occurs.
Did we really say that?! "Theft"? Yes. In its most natural state, a beach is a strip of shoreline available to everyone. A beach connects you to a body of water that each one of us has the right to use and enjoy. When pollution claims that beach - makes it unavailable to you for safe enjoyment - it is gone. Taken away.
Poor old Lake Ontario gets teased or mocked for its pollution woes. But the Lake is not the problem. Our aging and poorly designed sewer systems, our obsession with paving and filling and redirecting every inch of shoreline keeps monkeying with the Lake's ability to cleanse itself. When we blame the lake for the problems we cause or forget its true nature (clean!), we allow polluters to get away with their acts of theft.
7. LOW publishes beach updates every day. So you can swim. So you will remember.
Every day we check the status of one hundred beaches in the Lake Ontario watershed. We publish updates on Twitter, Facebook, and our own website, so you know where it is safe to swim. We also have a database where we can add up all those postings over time. This helps us track which beaches are clean most often and how different areas are doing over time. Not one government agency in our watershed currently provides that kind of analysis. So we do it. For you.
* To our friends in the USA: We are working on your beaches, too! We are including as many American beaches as we can find on our map. The two beaches in Monroe County are part of our daily reporting.