Swim season is upon us. The urge to connect with water is at its strongest during these warm summer months. The lakes, rivers, and streams are yours to enjoy. Yet, recreational water guidelines which are in place to protect public health from contaminated water are poorly understood. The E. coli thresholds mean the difference between open and posted beaches but are also an indicator of drinkable and fishable waters. That is why Swim Drink Fish Canada, Environmental Defence and the Canadian Environmental Law Association request the proposed weakening of the current recreational water quality guidelines in Ontario be posted on the environmental registry for public review and comment.
For many years, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and Environmental Defence have been water leaders, working with people and government to connect our communities to our waters through recreational use. The Swim Guide and Blue Flag beaches are just a couple examples of that work. These programs understand the simple solution to achieving swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters: people must have an entry point into nature and an experience that will fuel the desire for action to protect and restore it.
We have over a decade of experience in water sampling, reporting, and building relationships with communities across the Great Lakes and beyond to protect recreational waters. We have observed great progress during this time, notably in the availability and access to test results and the willingness of health units to better communicate their water quality with the public. However, we’ve learned there is still much more that can be done. The public has a right to be informed about the health risks associated with contaminated water; things like what are fecal indicator bacteria, what does the threshold of E.coli have to do with my health, the health impacts of sewage. Moreover, the science of water monitoring gets better and better, with clear evidence that increasing sampling frequency, employing rapid methods, building predictive models for forecasting water quality in real-time, and ensuring open access to water quality data will better protect public health.
The City of Toronto is a leader in beach water quality monitoring. The city samples its beaches daily and posts its results online in an open access format so it can be easily shared and understood. It is also our understanding the City of Toronto will not be changing its recreational water guidelines despite Ontario’s proposal to relax from a geomean of 100 CFU/100 ml to 200 CFU/100 ml of water. The new guidelines include a new single sample maximum reading.
The City of Kingston, with assistance from all levels of government and The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, Swim Drink Fish Canada and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, is restoring an old pier downtown in front of Queen’s University. It is to become the Gordon Edgar Downie Swimming Pier after Gord gave his blessing to its renaming. The waters will be protected by real-time monitoring of sewage in the area and enhanced access for people. Once completed this summer, it will be the model for urban recreational water projects on the Great Lakes.
New Blue Flag beaches are being opened across the Great Lakes every year. Recreational water users deserve the right to proper beach access as well as water quality knowledge. The best thing that they can do is download the Swim Guide app to access up-to-date water quality and beach information. Swim Guide (www.theswimguide.org), which started with a focus on reporting daily Lake Ontario beach water quality has since grown to an online platform and mobile app used in over 6 countries, 3 languages, 7,000 beaches, with nearly 2 million all-time users. Swim Guide affiliates contribute data to the platform. They are the heart and soul of the program. Affiliates are non-profits, schools, business owners, and citizens who voluntarily find water quality data and put it into the hands of public by updating Swim Guide manually with test results from monitoring programs. In addition, nearly all of our 80 affiliates run recreational water quality monitoring programs and use Swim Guide to share their test results.
All of this progress and success around recreational water reflects a strong desire for safe clean water. A 2016 IJC Great Lakes poll noted 86% of people in the Great Lakes basin feel it is important to protect the Great Lakes for recreational water. Clearly the issue is very important.
Despite the importance of the relationship between recreational water guidelines and connecting people to the water, the new Ontario water quality guidelines are being ushered in without public input or debate. That is why our groups are asking the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to seek public input before changing the guidelines in place to protect health at beaches. There is too much at stake to get this wrong. And there are so many new and exciting ways to better inform the public about water quality and potential risks to their health. Poor guidelines will send the public mixed messages on the safety of swimming in our waters. The Environmental Bill of Rights was created to ensure the public is engaged and heard before important environmental guidelines, standards and regulations are implemented. We are exercising that right now to prevent unforeseen and serious consequences to swimmers this summer. And to ensure our progress and success around swimmable, drinkable, fishable water is not stalled.