People love beaches. One in four Canadians will visit a beach this year. One in three Canadians says that their fondest memories of outdoor activities involve water. We love beaches so much that we will spend 13 weeks of our lives at the beach.
Spending time at the beach is about more than just splashing in water. It’s about celebrating the things you love: family, friends, nature, freedom.
This begs the question - why aren’t we all at the beach right now?
We created Swim Guide to help get you to the beach faster, making your experience there better, healthier, and safer. Since we launched Swim Guide in 2011, we’ve noticed a few common barriers that are keeping people from where they want to be with the people they want to see.
Barrier #1: You don’t know where to go
Beaches are out there, waiting for us. But most of us can’t see them from our front door. There are very few beach ad campaigns calling out for your attention.
You have this notion that the lake is there somewhere. You should probably swim, but you’re not sure where the beach is. You don’t really know who to ask. Plus, there’s a new series starting on Netflix tonight, so maybe you’ll get there another day.
Maybe you went to the beach all the time, but now you have three kids. You need a family-friendly environment, not the bush party experience. Parking, guaranteed access to food, and a place to wash sand off the little one’s butt before heading home – how do you find that?
Or maybe you just moved to the area. Everything is new, and you don’t know if beaches are even part of daily life in this new community.
It should be easier to find your way to the water.
Barrier #2: Finding data is hard
Let’s say you’ve overcome the first barrier. You know the beaches are out there. You know you want to go. You even know that water quality is monitored. How do you find that information?
People are increasingly looking on the web for beach information. Tools have improved in the last three years, but they can still be hard to find. You often need to know specialized search terms or understand the layers of government that all look after beaches and have the information you need.
If you live in the east end of Mississauga, your closest beach is monitored by a neighbouring city. You need to check Toronto’s website to find the information you’re seeking. Your other beaches are monitored by the region, not a city, so you need to check the Peel website for those. But if you want to go to the provincial park, then you need to visit the province’s Ontario Parks website instead. That’s 3 different government bodies holding information for the 5 beaches closest to you.
Even more challenging is that some government authorities do not share their beach data at all. Some major monitoring bodies did not release basic information such as a list of the beaches they monitor and the frequency of their sampling until we called them, repeatedly. Some choose not to share this basic information to this day.
When there is a desire to share information, some organizations do not simply because they lack resources. This includes nonprofit organizations who monitor water quality but lack the funds to build a database and a web portal to get the results out to the public at large.
Swim Guide tries to fill the gap, but progress is slow compared to the public’s appetite for water quality information.
Barrier #3: Data can be confusing
When you do find the water quality information you need, it doesn’t always make sense. If you call one beach hotline in the U.S. Great Lakes region, you will be informed that one of their beaches was sampled yesterday at 9 am and that it is “300”. What does that mean?
To interpret “300”, you need to know:
- beaches are sampled for bacteria
- the result is 300 “colony forming units” of a bacteria called “E. coli”
- high numbers of E. coli are bad and low numbers are good
- there is an EPA standard for E. coli that tells you what is “too high”
- this “300” result is higher than the EPA standard, meaning there is an elevated risk of contracting a waterborne illness
It is great that the monitoring authority is sharing actual sample results, but the information is not presented in a way that an untrained citizen can understand. And we have 0 programs to train citizens.
Other chronic problems include failing to date sample results. Not being able to tell whether water quality results are from yesterday or from three years ago makes good information useless.
When we created Swim Guide, we talked a lot about whether there should be a “caution” status - i.e., “yellow.” We decided against it, to the chagrin of most scientists.
“Green” means water quality results met applicable water quality standards. “Red” means water quality results do not meet applicable water quality standards. There is no way to “maybe” swim - so there’s no status in Swim Guide for “maybe.”
The truth is, the green light on a beach is not the most important factor for someone choosing to swim. The most common deciding factor?
100% of the beaches we visited in 2012-2013 had people swimming, even though water quality did not meet government standards and red flags were flying.
People go in the water because they see others in the water. That’s the data that really counts.
Barrier #4: The biggest barrier of all
The number one reason you aren’t at the beach today is because no one invited you. No one plunked you in the car. No one paid your transit fare. No one texted you and suggested a sunset picnic. If they had, you’d probably go.
The social and cultural relationship we have with our beaches is the most powerful force of all. Web tools like Swim Guide help make it easier to get to the beach. But they aren’t enough on their own.
This barrier is heightened if you, like me, grow up in a polluted community. No one ever invites you to the beach – after all, you can’t even touch the water once you get there. The beach is out of sight, then out of mind. It’s not long before a generation goes by, and the connection to the beach is lost entirely. In that way, our social memories and our social expectations influence a beach’s future. If we remember it is there, expect it to be clean, and hold it fast, it will most likely be restored. If we turn our backs, it will most likely be lost.
This is adapted from a presentation given by Swim Guide co-creator Krystyn Tully at the Healthy Parks, Healthy People Conference and Workshop 2015. The conference was hosted by the Centre for Applied Sciences in Ontario Protected Areas and took place at the University of Waterloo on May 6-7, 2015.