Last summer, Waterkeeper collected 166 samples from the Toronto Harbour. We learned quite a bit about our harbour, including where some of the more polluted spots are and just how high the bacteria levels can get. You can see the full results of those samples here.
The main thing we learned was the need to continue sampling. The summer program showed that we don’t have enough information to truly grasp the sewage situation in the harbour. More data is needed. Moreover, the end of summer certainly did not mark the end of recreational water activity in Toronto. People continue to get out on the water right through the fall and into winter, as the colder months can actually be better for some water activities in Toronto, such as surfing.
With that in mind, Waterkeeper sampled the Toronto Harbour this winter. We went on seven sampling trips since mid-January. To keep consistent with last summer, PawsWay Marina and the Harbourfront Canoe & Kayak Centre were once again chosen as main sites. Sampling stations were slightly modified to accommodate for the changes to winterized docks, and access.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t collect samples at our other main site from last summer, the slip at Bathurst Quay. The water is just too hard to reach and the icy conditions make it too dangerous to try. This location will be targeted again once it gets warmer.
As you can see, winter sampling presents different challenges than in the summer. There were concerns that ice in the harbour would limit, if not completely take away our ability to collect samples. While it did make things unsafe at Bathurst Quay, the water itself has seen minimal ice cover. Much like the rest of the Great Lakes and its historically low levels of ice this winter.
What we’ve seen so far
Winter sampling introduced us to a whole other Toronto waterfront. The hustle and bustle of summer gave way to quiet.
We sampled in fog so thick, we could barely see the water. We sampled in snow storms, and sunny, freezing days. We also sampled in many unseasonably warm days, which was easy on our hands, but very concerning for us.
We also saw some birds you wouldn’t normally see at other times of the year. Chief among them were long-tailed ducks, the poster child for wintering birds on the waterfront. It’s quite something to be taking a sample of water and then see a couple swimming underneath you as if they were fish.
We also saw mergansers and the familiar mallards, all taking advantage of the lack of ice nearshore.
In contrast to the vision of ducks against the beautiful, wintry waters of the harbour was the unseemly sight of pollution. Signs of sewage from combined sewer overflows, plastic pollution, garbage, and more.
And that’s the image that has stuck with me the most. I joined Waterkeeper in October 2016, so this was my first ever sampling excursion. And it’s a good time, sampling the waters is both fun and enlightening.
Going in I already felt strongly about the importance of sampling the waters, in that it gives recreational water users the information they need to make informed decisions about their health. What can get lost, however, is that we are not the only ones out there on Lake Ontario. Seeing ducks navigate around piles of plastic really drove home the importance of how critical it is to take care of our waters. Monitoring the Harbour is one way of gaining more knowledge about what many Canadians consider our most valuable resource.
What about the test results?
Last summer we had some test results came back that were hundreds of times higher than government standards. But this winter? For the most part, samples have come back with low levels of E. coli bacteria. Prior to samples taken on March 8 (which we’ll get to in a minute), only a few samples failed to meet the government standard for secondary contact (ie, boating), and even then it wasn’t by a large margin. The Harbourfront has been especially clean, with results so low they even pass government standards for swimming.
However, right when we were getting used to the idea of low bacteria levels for this time of year, samples from March 8 turned everything on its head. E. coli levels from samples taken at the PawsWay were so high that they were virtually uncountable. Even Harbourfront had some samples come back as fails. Rainfall from the day before may have been a factor.
The plan now is to continue sampling into spring and right through summer. Interested in helping out? Then stay tuned to our volunteer page as we’ll be looking for help collecting samples in the summer! Details for summer sampling will be posted there as we get closer to June.