Some time in 2001, I took my first water sample. I know it was in Toronto, but I’m not sure where it was. It could have been a leaking landfill at King’s Mill Park on the Humber River, an old gas station seeping into Wendigo Creek in High Park, or a sewer pipe emptying into Taylor Massey Creek.
The funny thing about monumental moments is that they don’t always feel monumental in the moment.
Before I collected my first sample, I’d made a webpage for a manual that Waterkeeper Mark Mattson created to teach citizens how to investigate pollution. It turns out, when you spend hours formatting webpages that explain how samples are collected, how and why onsite notes are taken, and the ways that volunteers safeguard water and environmental rights, you start daydreaming about becoming a citizen scientist yourself. By the time I got to go into the field, I felt like I was part of something bigger than me.
There is power in a sample, especially one collected at the right time, in the right place, for a clear purpose. Coupled with a credible story and backed by enforceable environmental rules, samples have prompted literally billions of dollars in spending on restoration in Canada. When I make a mental list just of strategic samples collected by citizen scientists I personally know, I can link that work to at least $1.5-billion in restoration spending.
We started testing for bacteria in Toronto rivers because Waterkeeper had been told that sewage pollution was an all-day-every-day problem. The city’s wet weather plan was a hot topic around 2002, but it focused on (as the name implies) wet weather overflows. Meanwhile, residents were telling us that some sewage pipes were spewing bacteria and debris even on dry, sunny days.
They were right. We spent a year testing water at sewer outfalls in different Ontario cities and we found high levels of E. coli everywhere we looked. We packaged up the results in a 2003 report that helped municipalities understand the problem of dry weather overflows in Toronto, Hamilton, Sarnia, and other places. We also filed a legal request with the Province of Ontario to look at the issue; some of their work continues to this day.
After working with the province-wide perspective, we shifted our attention to a specific beach. Bluffer’s Beach in Toronto was (and still is) a stunning oasis at the foot of the Bluffs. It also failed to meet water quality guidelines almost all the time. With no river or sewage pipes nearby, its chronic bacteria problems were a mystery. We worked with a biologist to identify the source of the contamination and advocate for restoration in another report. Government officials took up the case, restored the beach, and it’s now one of Toronto’s jewels.
We stopped collecting samples in Toronto for a while, and switched gears to start tracking beach postings. We compiled a list of beaches and pass/fail results in annual reports for a few years.
We knew that getting water quality results in the fall when you want to go to the beach today isn’t ideal. So we made an app and website that could display current water quality results free to everyone and called it “Swim Guide”. That app has since gone on to become the world’s largest beach water quality database, is active in 10 countries, and has more than 3-million users. (Remember what I said about monumental things not always feeling monumental in the moment?)
In 2016, our old sampling work, our concerns about sewage, and our new Swim Guide data sharing efforts melded. We wanted to know what was really causing bacteria problems in Toronto Harbour (we thought it was sewage, but officials blamed it on farms and the Don River). We also wanted to make sure Torontonians know when the water is good for boating and paddling so they can spend as much time on the water possible. That meant collecting samples at the right times (dry weather, wet weather, for example) and in the right places (where people are using the water) and for a purpose (find the source of the problem so we can help fix it).
We didn’t have a lot of funding for the work, so we appealed for help on Indiegogo. The results were amazing. We raised enough money to bring our boat to Toronto and conduct the investigation we’d designed to find the source of the pollution. (It turned out to be the combined sewer overflows.) We even raised enough money to start collecting samples often enough and consistently enough to publish the results regularly in Swim Guide. Now all harbour users can see water quality results for themselves. We’ve kept the program running every summer since then.
In that time, hundreds of volunteers have given their time to the Toronto Harbour Monitoring project. Their enthusiasm drives the monitoring work forward. Super-volunteers even started their own satellite hubs on Toronto Island, Humber Bay, and now a citizen science school at Harbourfront.
To get here, we had to solve some challenges. How do get the cost down from the $325 minimum per sample? How can we get sample results faster than 2-7 days? How can we respond quickly to spills and floods? Can we develop a system that would allow volunteers to do a lot of the legwork with the same accuracy and reliability as trained professional scientists?
We worked through those challenges to create a “monitoring hub” system. And it works. The response is so positive that now we’re having a hard time accommodating all the Toronto volunteers who are interested in the project. We definitely can’t monitor all the places on the waterfront that people want monitored.
The Toronto Hub’s success brought in the next wave of questions: How can we help more people sample in more places? How can we adapt what works in downtown Toronto for small towns and remote communities? How can ensure Indigenous communities are included and benefit from recreational water quality monitoring efforts? How can we share what we learn with as many other people as possible?
That’s what makes this week so exciting. Swim Drink Fish (the parent organization of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper) is officially announcing the launch of two new monitoring hubs. One is in Zhiibaahaasing First Nation on Manitoulin Island. The other is on the north shore of Lake Erie in the Niagara region. Swim Drink Fish hired monitoring coordinators for each community and is collaborating with Zhiibaahaasing First Nation, the Niagara Coastal Communities Collaborative and Niagara College of Applied Arts and Technology, Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus to operate summer monitoring hubs. The Toronto Hub is in full-swing as well, with roughly 200 volunteers signed up for the summer season. Two more Great Lakes hubs will open in 2020 and the sixth and final hub in 2021. Meanwhile, across the country, fellow Swim Drink Fish Initiative, Fraser Riverkeeper has just launched year-round water quality monitoring in Vancouver. All-told, Swim Drink Fish is investing more than $2-million in monitoring hubs and citizen science in the next few years.
Our work on the Great Lakes is being funded with the support of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Great Lakes Protection Initiative. The grant’s purpose is to help us answer the new wave of questions about how to support monitoring hubs and involve more citizen scientists in recreational water quality monitoring. When it’s all said and done, the model we’ve developing should allow anyone anywhere to replicate our work by 2022.
It feels monumental.
Toronto Harbour is the place where I came to understand the importance of recreational waters. This is the harbour I look at year after year. It holds the waters I boat on, ferry on, look for fish in, watch the ducks and herons splash around in, and paddle across. I know it’s not the remote wilderness that other nature people dream about. But it’s my waterbody, and I shouldn’t have to move, drive for hours, make a lot of money, or own an extra house somewhere just to feel clean water on my skin.
You may have different waterbody you feel connected to and want to protect. You might be concerned about sewage, like me. You might also be worried about algae or plastics. Or maybe you want to protect your pristine waterscape from future harm. Whatever your desire, if you’re like most people in Canada, you want access to information, tools, and social networks to help you safeguard your water. That’s what these monitoring hubs provide.
The hubs work. I’ve seen it. Through this model, we can bring people back to the water’s edge. Collect data about the health of the waterbody. Facilitate experiences that help people truly understand their water. And forge connections and relationships that will support a new generation of water leaders. In other words, we can ensure swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone.