Ecojustice Blog – Healthy communities Posted on July 25, 2013 (updated: February 17, 2015)

Is your water swimmable this summer weekend?

Dr. Anastasia Lintner

Swimmable Water Weekend starts tomorrow. And, also this weekend — July 26-28 — is an event that my family looks forward to each year. In fact, we start counting the days until next year’s event as soon at the current one ends.

The event I’m talking about is the Hillside Festival. Hosted on an island in Guelph Lake, this music festival has sustained a commitment to celebrate “creativity through artistic expression, community engagement and environmental leadership” for 30 years. Not only do Hillside’s environmental values resonate with me, the location where the festival has been hosted for the majority of its term allows for a quick swim to cool off in the summer heat. That is, so long as the beach is safe for swimming.

It is particularly disappointing for my 9-year-old son and my eight-year-old niece if we can’t do much more than wade in the water to our knees when what we really need is to dunk our heads completely.

Stormwater, bacteria and beach management
The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care requires that local public health units follow the Beach Management Protocol in implementing beach management programs. Many public beaches in Ontario are regularly tested for water quality and “posted” when there is a risk to health due to high E. coli levels. The likelihood that a beach will be “posted,” which means that signs will be put up that warn of a health risk, is higher after a particularly intense rainstorm.

The stormwater sweeps wastes from our streets, sidewalks, yards and fields into our streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. As well, our stormwater systems can be overwhelmed and cause, in some communities, combined sewer overflows or wastewater treatment plant spills carrying raw sewage into our waterways. But rainfall is only one of the factors that influences recreational water quality. As well, E. coli is only one of the water pollutants that we should be cautious about.

It’s important to know whether there is a health risk before you swim. If you take the risk, and swim at a beach with high E. coli levels, you are exposing yourself and your children to infection. The most common are minor infections of the skin, eye, nose and throat, and stomach problems.

For Pit Beach at Guelph Lake, there is a large number of wild fowl, mostly Canadian geese in my observation, which are contributing to the potential problem. Waste from local wildlife, combined with waste from pets that is not scooped up by campers and other visitors to the Guelph Lake Conservation Area, will be carried into the water with a rainstorm. There isn’t much my family can do about the water quality at Pit Beach. However, there are things that we can all do, and things that Ecojustice is doing, to improve the water quality and keep our waters swimmable.

What you can do to keep waters swimmable
Observe “stoop and scoop” bylaws: ensure that pet waste is composted rather than washed away with rainwater.

Disconnect rain spouts: detach eavestrough downspouts so that rainwater goes into the ground rather than the storm sewer.

Be informed: find out the quality at your local beach by checking the beach advisories in your area.

Participate: consider engaging with Waterkeepers to report pollution, access the swim guide app, and communicate about how much you care about clean water by sharing your photos and stories on social media using #SwimmableWater.

How Ecojustice fights for swimmable waters
Ecojustice has been advocating for the wider use of green infrastructure, improved water conservation and efficiency measures, and stricter standards on wastewater infrastructure for many years.

We saw many of our recommendations adopted in the Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act in 2010 and in Ontario’s Great Lakes Strategy in 2012. We are currently working to improve implementation of these government initiatives and to improve the proposed Great Lakes Protection Act as it makes its way through the legislative process.

Although our MPPs are on summer recess, we continue to refine our recommendations and prepare for the fall term, when we anticipate that the proposed law will finish second reading and begin hearings at an all-party Legislative Standing Committee. It won’t be all work this summer, though. My family and I will be spending the weekend enjoying Guelph Lake and, fingers-crossed, swimming at Pit Beach.

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