Water quality at swimming beaches has been a long-standing concern around the Great Lakes. Even in the cooler waters of Superior at Thunder Bay, ON, beaches like Chippewa often have swimming advisories lasting days on end. In fact, the City of Thunder Bay is now encouraging swimmers to move from Chippewa to nearby nearby Sandy Beach, a less enclosed situation wide open to the main lake. Swimming advisories due to high E coli counts at Sandy Beach are much less frequent.
Elevated bacteria levels can indicate pathogens causing health issues in humans, at which point swimming advisories are issued. These are “advisories” and not outright bans on swimming. On the U.S. side of Superior at Duluth’s Park Point, swimming is a popular activity and bacteria monitoring takes place at 4 separate locations (Park Point is the long sand spit separating the inner and outer harbour).
Duluth and Thunder Bay are not the only places where water quality for swimming is monitored. On the Canadian side, the Thunder Bay District Health Unit monitors summer water quality at Wildgoose Beach near Thunder Bay, Pull-A-Log Beach in Red Rock and Terrace Bay Beach. On the U.S. side locations as diverse as Sugarloaf Cove, Cutface Creek, Kadunce River and Chicago Boat Launch Beach in Minnesota are monitored as well as hundreds and hundreds of beaches in Wisconsin and Michigan, some of which are on Superior.
On Lake Ontario, Environmental organization Lake Ontario Waterkeeper (LOW) is looking for public health accountability for water testing in Toronto’s harbour. The Toronto Star (in partnership with Ryerson School of Journalism) found that no sector of government – municipal, provincial, or federal – is currently claiming responsibility for E. coli testing in Toronto’s inner harbour. LOW has provided such testing since last summer on the strength of crowdsourced funding and sponsorships.
According to the article, LOW’s testing returned numbers 30 times over federal guidelines for boating, and 300 times over provincial guidelines for swimming. At the time the Toronto Star printed the article, the city had recently received large volumes of rainfall: three days of approximately 20 mm in the first ten days of May. Officials from the City of Toronto, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate change told the Star that a heavy influx of stormwater accounts for the spike in E. coli discharges.
The City of Toronto tests for E. coli at its beaches, using the ‘blue flag’ system to signal which beaches are safe for recreational use. However, the City has not routinely tested for E. coli in the harbourfront since 2009. Provincial health officials stopped testing the area in 2008. Representatives from both the City (Frank Quarisa, director of waste water treatment) and MOECC (Jim Martherus, supervisor with MOECC’s environmental monitoring and reporting branch) told the Star that high variability in E. coli numbers after severe weather events, such as high rainfall, as the reason why testing is no longer done.
According to the Star, LOW raised $20,000 last year to resume testing; this year’s budget is set at $25,000. Cofounder Krystyn Tully believes government health officials should take responsibility for testing, as the inner harbour is used recreationally for boaters and paddle boarders. Tully tells the Star: “When you think of standup paddleboarding, unless you’re excellent, you’re going to end up in the water. If you’re kayaking, part of the training is learning how to flip over. We were seeing people in these sewage areas with no knowledge of the health risks which is why we started doing this.”
If you’re looking to use public waters in a recreational manner, here are some websites around Lake Superior which monitor public beaches and waterways for E.coli. Check them out or contact your local public health office before your Lake Superior adventure:
- Thunder Bay District Health Unit
- Algoma Public Health
- Minnesota Beaches
- Michigan Beaches
- Wisconsin Beaches