“A swimmable Great Lakes system is one where more beaches are sampled more frequently and meet standards more often than ever before.” - Waterkeeper Mark Mattson
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has been intently studying monitoring results on the Great Lakes for four years, through our Swim Guide program. We have gathered invaluable and unique data from 1,012 Great Lakes beaches, such as: sampling results, beach postings, sampling frequency and methodology.
From this data, we can assess all kinds of things like: is Great Lakes water improving for swimming? Are beaches getting better or worse? How often are beaches sampled? And are there trends that need to be addressed?
When I look over the data at the start of the 2015 Great Lakes swimming season, I notice a worrisome trend. Beaches on the Great Lakes failed to meet government water quality standards 8.59% of the summer. That sounds pretty good.
But water quality data was not available for 20% of the summer last year. That’s not good.
The gold standard for sampling beaches are cities like Chicago and Toronto, where beaches are sampled almost daily. That frequency of sampling is the only way to give the public the clearest idea of which beaches are fit for swimming. But there’s a downside.
Daily sampling reveals water quality problems that authorities might not want to publicize. As the frequency in monitoring and reporting increases, so does the frequency of advisories and closings. The US EPA reported that with increased monitoring in 2000, the number of beaches with advisories in place for more than 10% of the season doubled.
“Dirty” beaches don’t just send residents scurrying away from the lakes for a day or two. “Dirty” beaches send residents away from the lakes for years - even generations - at a time.
Afraid to turn people off of the Great Lakes, monitoring authorities have a number of ways of reporting results to make the lakes look good. There are regions where daily testing is skipped after heavy rain, so that bad test results don’t bring the numbers down for the season. There are regions where monitoring authorities re-sample until they “pass” water quality standards, never reporting the adverse results from earlier in the week. There are a host of beaches on the Great Lakes that are popular with people but not monitored at all.
Sample results reveal all kinds of important information about Great Lakes beaches, but they are only part of the story. The numbers alone can’t tell us whether the lakes are better or worse. At best, they reveal how quickly and how often water quality can change.
The hallmark of a clean beach is one that is sampled regularly and meets bacteriological water quality standards 95% of the time - that means one or two postings per summer. I can’t stress enough the importance of the “sampled regularly” criterion. Our Great Lakes should be swimmable, not because we massage the numbers, but because the waters are free from the sewage and stormwater pollution that cause beach postings.
A swimmable Great Lakes system is one where more beaches are sampled more frequently and meet standards more often than ever before.