ENVIRONMENT

Summer’s dark side

Bacteria are spoiling more beaches

D’ARCY JENISH August 27 1990
ENVIRONMENT

Summer’s dark side

Bacteria are spoiling more beaches

D’ARCY JENISH August 27 1990

Summer’s dark side

Bacteria are spoiling more beaches

ENVIRONMENT

Over the past decade, closing polluted beaches has become an increasingly common practice across Canada. This summer, municipal health inspectors in five provinces—British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia— have declared several dozen beaches unsafe for swimming. In each case, inspectors found excessive levels of a micro-organism called fecal coliform, a bacterium that originates in human and other animal waste and that enters rivers and lakes when sewers and septic tanks overflow during rainstorms. When people ingest or absorb the bacterium, it causes nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps and sore throats. Even when health inspectors declare that water is safe, many would-be bathers remain skeptical. On a hot, windy afternoon last week, interior designer Dianne Bartlett was sunning herself on Toronto’s Woodbine Beach, the only one of the city’s 16 Lake Ontario beaches that was

still open, but she said that she had no intention of swimming there. Said Bartlett: “I love to swim, but what the city says is irrelevant until they start seriously cleaning up the lake.” Unusually heavy rainfall in many parts of the country this season has resulted in the closure of many more beaches than last year, according to health inspectors in several provinces. And the inspectors point out that they test recreational waters only for the fecal coliform. Apart from the medical hazards, contaminated beaches are expensive to clean up. Several Ontario municipalities, as well as some provincially funded conservation areas, have begun to install equipment that holds or filters sewageladen storm runoff to prevent it from polluting recreational waters. And according to environmentalists, the root of the problem lies in the way cities are designed. Said Michael Hough, a landscape architect and an associate professor of environmental studies at York University

in Toronto: “When rain falls on hard surfaces like roofs, sidewalks and roads, there is an enormous increase in runoff.”

In Western and Atlantic Canada, only about a dozen beaches have been closed thj| summer. Health officials in Victoria, a city that dumjjß 118,000 cubic yards of raw sewage into the ocean every day, have closed two of 40 beaches in and around the community. Similarly, health inspectors based in Wetaskiwin, Alta., 60 km south of Edmonton, closed the beaches on Pigeon and Buck lakes for a total of 11 days in early July. Lucy Beck, super* visor of environmental health services with the WetokS Health Unit, said that heavy rains in the area likely caused flooding of septic tanks and runoff from cattle farms. In Nova Scotia, meanwhile* g health inspectors have closed I about half a dozen beaches in g and around Halifax, Dart£ mouth and Sydney, ï As in previous years, the I most serious problems have 1/1 occurred in Canada’s two most populous provinces, Ontario and Quebec. Each summer, the Quebec environment ministry hires university biology students to test and rate water quality in different regions of thâ province. They report the levels of coliform to municipal medical officers of health, who decide whether to close a beach. Normally, they would order CLOSED signs posted when 100-mL samples of water contain more than 200 cojk forms. Only two of 42 beaches tested in the Eastern Townships, south of Montreal, hav^ been closed this year. But in the Laval-Laurentide region north of the city, 13 of 175 beaches have been closed at various times over the summer. >

In Ontario, where the standard for contamination is only 100 coliforms per 100 mL of water, municipal health officials have closed beaches in both urban and rural areas right across the southern part of the province. Ott$wa-Carleton’s medical officer of health, Dr. Steven Corber, recommended that one of three major beaches within the city be closed on July 30. By last week, he had closed tlte other two. Two public beaches in North Bay, a city of 51,600 located on the shores of Laká Nipissing, 300 km north of Toronto, were closed for most of July. On the Bay of Quinte at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, the beaches have been closed for varying periods at Presqu’île, Sandbanks and North Beach provincial parks. Charles Matheson, supervisor of the three parks, said it was the first time that Presqu’île and Sandbanks have been declared off limits to swimmers. He added that the threè parks combined attract over 750,000 visitors a

year, making them among the most popular in the province. ^ Municipal officials and park managers who have experienced repeated beach closures hâve begun to search for, and in some cases find, new solutions. Donald Pearson, general manager of the Upper Thames River Conser-

vation Authority in London, Ont., said that, three years ago, the authority installed a vinyl curtain around the swimming area at one of its reservoirs at a cost of about $500,000. The curtain is anchored to the bottom of the reservoir and attached to a floating collar at the surface, which keeps it upright in the water. At one end of the curtain, water flows into the swimming area through an inlet channel. When the water is in the channel, it is exposed to ultraviolet light

for two seconds, which kills any micro-organisms. Pearson added that health inspectors had declared the area unsafe for swimming at least once every summer for several years before the curtain was installed. Since then, the beach has been free of coliform contamination. The city of Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, is currently studying a similar, but larger and more complicated, system to handle its korm-water runoff, which now ends up in Lake Ontario. Michael Price, Scarborough’s com-

missioner of public works, said that the system would likely consist of eight to 10 vinyl curtains ranging in length from 80 feet to 120 feet. They would be anchored to the bottom of the lake and held upright by floating docks, and would be arranged as a series of rectangular pools. As the storm water passed from one pool

to another, the debris, dirt and raw sewage would be filtered out. Then, the water would flow into Lake Ontario. The city of Toronto has already completed a $4.2million storm-water retention project, and public works officials say that it is a success. Nicholas Vardin, the city’s commissioner of public works, said that, last winter, the city installed a concrete tank capable of holding 500,000 gallons of storm water and sewage beneath a park adjacent to Woodbine

Beach. In previous years, storm water and raw sewage frequently flowed straight into the lake during rainfalls. Now, the runoff remains in the tank and flows to a nearby sewage treatment plant after a storm. Vardin added that the city plans to install a larger retaining tank, at a cost of $10 million, at another east-end beach by 1992. But cleaning up the city’s west-end beaches by using retaining tanks could cost as much as $40 million. The increasing prevalence of contaminated

beaches has forced municipal politicians, urban planners and landscape architects to rethink the design of new subdivisions, according to Hough. He said that some municipalities around Toronto stipulate in their zoning bylaws that storm water must be stored and treated rather than released directly into creeks, rivers or lakes. In some new subdivisions, storm water is channelled into manmade ponds where sediments, which bear most of the pollutants, merely settle out of the water over time. Said Hough: “The beaches problem has created a sense of urgency because it is so visible. It affects your lifestyle.” Cleaning up beaches in rural areas is also difficult because there are so many potential sources of pollution, and they are usually spread over large geographical areas. Dale Henry, an engineer with the water resources branch of the Ontario environment ministry, said that bacterial contamination can occur when cattle drink directly from a creek, when manure gets washed into a waterway or when waste from a dairy farm ends up in a river. Semi-rural subdivisions, cottages and acreages, which rely on septic systems for their sewage disposal, are another potential source of pollution, he said. Clearly, contaminated beaches have become a cause for increasing concern in cities and the countryside alike.

D’ARCY JENISH

HAL HAL QUINN QUINN

McLAUGHLIN McLAUGHLIN

GLEN GLEN ALLEN ALLEN