By Kaija Siirala and Krystyn Tully
Beaches continue to be an area of concern in many communities along Lake Ontario – among citizens, environmental groups and politicians alike. For many of the lake’s urban residents, beaches are our gateway to nature … the closest thing to wilderness we experience in our everyday lives.
For the past three years, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has kept a daily record of which beaches have been posted as safe or unsafe for swimming. We began our monitoring program in the Toronto area and we expand the list of monitored beaches each year. Nearly every beach in Ontario is impacted by sewage or stormwater pollution.
In Ontario, municipalities sample for E-coli and “post a beach closed” when E. coli levels exceed 100 counts. In 2006, municipalities showed few signs of improvement. Nearly every beach on the lake was posted at some point during the summer. Not one city had its beaches open 95% of the summer, the provincial standard for a clean beach.
The top five most frequently posted beaches were spread out over the lake: Jones Beach, in St. Catharines; Bayfront Park, in Hamilton; Rotary Park, in Durham; Lakeview Beach West, in Durham; and Wicklow Beach in Northumberland.
The good news is that there are also beaches safe for swimming in most areas. Eight beaches remained open for swimming for the entire season: In Toronto, Hanlan’s Point; In Durham Region, Frenchman’s Bay West and Whitby Beach; In Prince Edward County, Centennial Park –Northport and Zwick’s Island; and in Northumberland, Port Hope East and Victoria.
Causes and solutions
There is no single cause of beach postings. E. coli can come from old sewage systems that dump untreated sewage into the lake. It can come from stormwater that carries contaminated water from our neighbourhoods to our beaches, or from wetlands that are designed to treat stormwater but are not working properly. Some experts point to birds, though Waterkeeper has not yet found a correlation between the number of birds at a beach and levels of E. coli.
In Ontario, we have a number of provincial policies that are designed to identify contaminated beaches, locate the source of the contamination, and improve water quality so it is safe for human and aquatic life. The Ministry of the Environment’s “Procedure F55” says beaches in cities with combined sewer systems – where sewage is discharged untreated when there is a lot of rain or snow – must be open at least 95% of the summer.
The Ministry of Health’s “Beach Management Protocol” says municipalities must identify every possible source of E. coli (pipes, wetlands, septic tanks etc.) and locate the actual source by process of elimination in order to solve the problem. Unfortunately, no municipality on the lake is using these tools to meet these provincial goals.
Since no municipality has met Ontario’s standards for a clean beach in the three years the monitoring program has been in place, the battle to reclaim Lake Ontario’s beaches is far from over.