Many of you saw the signs on Vancouver and West Vancouver beaches last summer warning swimmers to stay out of the water. It wasn’t an oil spill. It was E. coli—a very nasty bacteria causing vomiting and diarrhea. There may have been other things in the water to worry about as well. Though if anybody knew, they weren’t saying.
Oil and E. coli have little in common. But both are bad news when it comes to water quality. And both fall into a gray zone where jurisdictions overlap, responsibilities differ, and coordination is weak. The lesson of the oil spill this month is that comfortable assumptions about what systems are in place can be very wrong. Systems don’t work when key pieces have gone missing because of budget cuts.
In Metro Vancouver, many agencies and organizations are involved the issue of recreational water quality: Fisheries and Oceans Canada deals with fish habitat; Transport Canada (as we have recently seen), regulates the discharge of pollutants from ships as well as small vessels; the B.C. Ministry of the Environment sets water quality guidelines; Metro Vancouver deals with sewage discharge; and the list goes on.
Until federal funding cuts led to its closure in 2013, the Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program (BIEAP) acted as a single point of contact for water issues in Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River estuary. Among other things, it produced an environmental management plan that identified “objectives and actions that will ensure coordinated decision-making and improve the environmental quality of Burrard Inlet”.
BIEAP’s work was supposed to be picked up by some of its former partner groups, Port Metro Vancouver in particular. The mandate of the Port, however, is much narrower. Cuts to programs providing coordination cannot be fully made up by individual agency efforts despite the importance of those efforts in improving water quality.
Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) is responsible for monitoring and testing the water quality of Metro Vancouver’s beaches and fresh water swimming areas. VCH takes several water samples at least once a week from June through September at each location. If the E. coli count goes over 200 bacteria per 100 millilitres of water, VCH notifies the relevant municipality and the municipality posts signs on the beach advising the public that the beach is closed to swimming.
West Vancouver began closing its beaches last summer in mid-July. By early August, all five West Van beaches were closed. In Vancouver, closed signs were posted at Sunset Beach from the end of July to mid-September. The peak E. coli count at Sunset Beach in mid-August averaged almost 1,200 bacteria per 100 millilitres of water, six times the level considered safe.
For a city and region that prides itself on its environmental leadership, beach closures are more than a temporary inconvenience. They are a black eye. And the beaches are not the worst of it. Recreational water use is about a lot more than swimming. Dragon boat paddlers, paddle boarders, kite surfers, kayakers, canoeists, rowers, wind surfers, boaters, and sailors are all on, and sometimes in, the water; some of them in False Creek.
False Creek is a story by itself. While not designated as a swimming area and not subject to the same rules about closure, many users rightly complain that you don’t have to swim in order to get wet or have water get into your mouth. Telling dragon boaters to keep their mouths closed while paddling in False Creek and then to wash their hands and shower afterwards is not good enough.
Last summer E. coli levels at the eastern end of False Creek were already 287 per 100 millilitres when testing began on June 5. They peaked at 5,404 per 100 millilitres at the end of August—27 times safe swimming levels. At around the same time, central and western False Creek peaked at over 2,000 and 1,800 per 100 millilitres respectively.
There are things we need to start doing now to address this problem. First, we need to better pinpoint the sources of E. coli. We know that there are three suspect groups—humans, dogs, and birds. We understand that tests can tell us the relative amounts of feces in the water produced by each group. That information would be helpful in designing a response.
Second, we need a forum for all the players responsible for the quality of recreational water to discuss issues and propose remedies—not only those that set standards and monitor, but those that can do something to remedy problems when they are identified .
The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, of which we are members, is not a big player in relation to recreational water quality control. But we have a big interest in seeing that those who are responsible do their job well and take action when action is needed. We would like to set a goal for Vancouver of no beach closures and no recreational water counts above safe swimming limits. We think this goal is attainable.
We hope people in all areas of Metro Vancouver will support this effort and will hold their respective governments at all levels to account. If the public outpouring of concern after this month’s oil spill is any indication, our hope will be realized and beach closure signs will become a thing of the past.