Is it really cleaner on the other side?

Different water-testing schedules in Ottawa and Gatineau can have a major impact on beach closures, even between neighbouring beaches. So how do you know when and where it is safe to swim?

Written by: Chloe Montreuil-Spencer

Ouf! It was a hot summer day and all I wanted to do was to cool off and spend time at one of my local beaches. I checked my Waterkeepers Swim Guide app and looked up the beaches near my location. That’s when I realised that something was fishy… The beaches on the Ottawa side were closed after a heavy rainfall, but the Gatineau beaches remained open! How could this be? Was the water really cleaner on the other side?

To swim or not to swim

When you plan a day at the beach, you ultimately need to know which beaches are open, and which ones have signs advising no swimming. Typically, a beach will have a no-swim advisory after a heavy rainfall when sewage overflows and stormwater runs off into the river, increasing the risks of water-borne diseases such as those caused by E. coli bacteria. Signs on the beach, the free Waterkeeper Swim Guide app, and the local health unit website postings keep the community up-to-date on water quality results for various local beaches. Living by the Ottawa River, we get to pick from a wide range of beaches on the Ontario, as well as the Quebec, sides of the river. Unfortunately, both provinces test water quality in different ways, and the results can be confusing to swimmers.

How does Ontario test the water?

In Ontario, the municipal health units test water weekly throughout the swimming season. They collect 5 samples and the water is deemed unsafe for swimming when their average exceeds 200 E. coli / 100 mL of water for one day. Because of the ongoing problems of sewer overflow
s, the City of Ottawa tests water at the five urban beaches (Mooney’s Bay, Britannia Beach, Westboro Beach, Petrie East Bay and Petrie Island River Beaches) every day. Ottawa Public Health closes a beach to swimming if the E. coli count is more than 100 E. coli / 100 mL for two consecutive days (Ottawa Public Health, 2013).

How does Quebec test the water?

In Quebec, water is sampled 2 to 5 times per year with water quality grades being given to each beach. ‘A’ indicates the cleanest water, while beaches with a grade of ‘D’ are closed to swimming. The frequency of sampling each year is based on the previous year’s results. For example, if a waterway had an overall grade of A in 2012, samples would be taken at least 2 times during the 2013 swimming season. If a waterway had an overall grade of D (exceeding 200 E. coli/100 mL sample) in 2012, the health unit would sample at least 5 times over the 2013 swim season (MDDEP). Like in Ottawa, Ville de Gatineau independently carries out a testing program for its three beaches (Plage du Parc Moussette, Plage du parc des Cèdres, plage du lac Beauchamp) and samples every two weeks.

The problem

Unfortunately, sampling frequency can have a big impact on when a beach is closed to swimming, especially since levels of E. coli can vary drastically at same location over the years, as well as over a few days (Health Canada, 2012). During the 2013 swim season, for example, when Ottawa beaches were closed after a heavy rainfall, most of the Gatineau beaches located along the same stretch of the river remained open. Was the water really cleaner on the other side? The answer is no. Because samples in Quebec are taken at longer intervals, a sewage spill affecting water quality can go undetected for several days. That means that you could be swimming in polluted water.

Ottawa Riverkeeper recommends…

There are a few simple steps you can take to ensure that you are swimming in clean water. 1. In Ottawa and Gatineau, don’t swim after a rainfall on either side of the river. 2. Check the free Waterkeeper Swim Guide app or website before going swimming. If Ottawa River beaches are closed on the Ottawa side – where testing happens every day – then chances are that beaches on the opposite shore are unsafe for swimming as well. Choose not to swim that day or find a beach outside the Ottawa/Gatineau area. 3. If your municipality is not testing busy local beaches once a day, ask your city, municipal and/or provincial representatives why. Tell them that, as citizens, you have a right to know if, and when, your local beaches are truly safe for swimming.