Canadians love water. Our fondest outdoor memories involve water – swimming, canoeing, fishing. We love those water memories even more than hockey, suggests one survey from RBC.
So how is it that Canada is also one of the dirtiest countries in the industrialized world? How have we fallen to dead-last amongst the world’s wealthiest countries when it comes to environmental protection?
This question is at the heart of all Waterkeeper’s work right now. How can we reconcile what we say we love – water, nature, being outdoors with friends and family – with how we actually live?
Recreational water quality is the specific issue that keeps me awake. I just can’t accept that the waterways keeping Canadians alive are also making us sick.
Visit the waterfront or riverfront in virtually any major city in Canada after a heavy rainfall. Sewage and stormwater flow through pipes into the water, flushing bacteria and chemicals into the environment.
The city-builders who came before us didn’t design the system to capture and filter all our wastewater. They never imagined that Canada’s endless coastlines might not accept endless amounts of waste forever.
And yet here we are. Touch the water after heavy rains, and your risk of illnesses shoots up.
Think about that: People who live active lifestyles, who celebrate nature and do everything physical and mental health professionals encourage us to do also expose themselves to waterborne illnesses. Swimmers are 8 times more likely than non-swimmers to contract illnesses. Boaters, fishermen, are 40-50% more likely to get sick than people who hide from water.
The simplest “solution” is to steer clear. For years, government put up more and more signs telling people “no swimming” or “no fishing.” After all, you can’t contract a waterborne illness if you aren’t allowed near the water.
Until recently. With population growth, shrinking wilderness, and a rediscovery of our waterfronts, people are returning to the water in droves. Between 1996 and 2012, beach use nearly doubled in Canada – half the population now visits a beach every year.
As visits to the waterfront increase, it becomes obvious that there are two problems with the “no swimming solution.”
First, the signs don’t work. If it’s 30 degrees and sunny, people are going in the water. If they own a surfboard or rented a kayak for the day, they’re going in the water. If they so much as see other people in the water, they’re going in the water.
People want to swim. They have a right to swim. It makes for healthier individuals and stronger communities when they do swim. The least we can do is ensure the water that awaits them is clean.
Which brings me to the second problem. This is the one that really keeps me up at night, worrying.
What happens to kids who grow up in communities where the waterfront is littered with signs saying “No Swimming?" What do they learn about the watershed and their connection to the water that keeps them alive and drives the economy in their community?
I can tell you what happens, because that was me. I was trained to think Lake Ontario wasn’t for swimming. That it was a “dirty” lake. That only people with cottages and second homes got to enjoy the water.
Growing up in a community like that, the list of things you can’t do is much longer than the list of things you can do. That way of thinking affects every part of community life, from the way you spend time with your family to the decisions you make about business and the economy.
Pollution isn’t just bad for our health. It’s bad for our communities and bad for our culture. It undermines innovation and limits economic development.
If I’ve learned one thing in my twenty years in the environmental world, it’s this: Communities pay more when they invest less. Truly prosperous communities are built on swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.