By JOHN BARBER, Globe and Mail
“I grew up in Britain ,” says city water czar Mike Price, explaining the perspective he brought to the task of freeing native-born Torontonians from their prejudices about Lake Ontario . “And the reason they taught us the breast stroke was so you could push some of the ‘floatables’ out of the way as you swam along.”
‘Floatables,’ it would seem, is a technical term from the lexicon of the sewage treatment business. But that isn’t what brought Mr. Price to Woodbine Beach on a glorious morning this week, with a blinding sun hammering the clean sand and a cool breeze ruffling the sparkling blue lake.
Quite the opposite: There hasn’t been a floatable spotted here in years. Along with a handful of east-end politicians, Mr. Price went to Woodbine to swim in waters now guaranteed to be fully floatable-free. The official swim marked the raising of four blue flags over Toronto ‘s cleanest beaches, signifying that they meet or exceed the most stringent international standards for cleanliness and water quality. (The other three are Cherry, Ward’s Island and Hanlan’s Point.)
While it might not have the same propaganda value as Chairman Mao’s 1956 swim across the Yangtze River , this week’s Blue Flag dip made an excellent point. A generation ago, Torontonians swam by the thousands on all the eastern and island beaches every hot summer weekend, heedless of peril. Today swimmers are rare — and for no rational reason. Even before their certification in the European-based Blue Flag program, these beaches were already cleaner than many of the famous European strands that sported the same pennant.
So the symbol is necessary to break the irrational mindset — the deep-seated notion that Lake Ontario is poisonous — which has done such damage to local culture.
“We are determined to reconnect Torontonians with their waterfront,” said Rick Smith, executive-director of Environmental Defence, the group co-ordinating the Blue Flag program in Canada , as a pod of photo-op seeking politicians cavorted in the waves behind him. Toronto is the first city in North America to receive Blue Flag certification, according to Dr. Smith.
But it was Mr. Price, who is retiring as the head of the city water department this summer, who first thought to import the program as a way to recapture the confidence of lake-o-phobic Torontonians. The first job was to enlist an independent organization — Environmental Defence, in this case — to monitor candidate beaches’ compliance with 27 different standards in categories of water quality, environmental management and safety.
It took two years of testing and monitoring before Environmental Defence awarded the city its first Blue Flags, according to Dr. Smith. Realistically, however, the certification was never in doubt. That’s because the beaches recently certified already exceeded Blue Flag standards for water quality.
In the European Union and most Canadian provinces, water is officially deemed suitable for swimming if tests show that it contains fewer than 200 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 millilitres. In Ontario , however, beaches are posted as unsafe for swimming when testing reveals half as many E. coli bacteria in the same amount of water. (E. coli is scientifically preferable to fecal coliform as an indicator of human and animal waste in the water, according to Mahesh Patel of the public health department.)
The upshot is that Toronto beaches are posted long before they reach levels of pollution that most of the world considers perfectly swimmable. “We already have the most stringent standards in Canada and, perhaps, North America and the world,” Mr. Patel said.
By the time the French Riviera city of Nice adopted even primary sewage treatment, in an attempt to bring local E. coli counts down from the thousands, Toronto beaches were already routinely exceeding Blue Flag standards. But nobody around here believes it, so we need the official certification to make the fact known.
Strangely enough, it was the environmental movement that killed beach culture in Toronto . Posted beaches became convenient props in the often crude scare campaigns that characterized the movement during the 1980s. It was not entirely negative, leading to massive investments in new infrastructure to prevent sewage from spilling into the lake following storms, but it made an indelible impression.
And it must be admitted that there is often evidence to justify the concern. Although they are not routinely posted, the western beaches near the mouth of the Humber River are a long way from earning their own flags. There, the problem is waste that washes off streets and into the river from its mouth all the way to its headwaters in sprawling York Region.
A similar problem afflicts Bluffer’s Park in Scarborough , according to Mr. Price. Waters of a newly constructed wetland in the park routinely test clean, while the nearby beach is just as often contaminated. The water department suspects that birds and animals are the culprits, according to Mr. Price, and it has invited the federal government to perform DNA analysis of Scarborough E. coli to determine their species of origin.
The good news today is that the same consciousness-raising groups that helped turn Torontonians away from even their best beaches — and all the Blue Flag beaches are wonderful in entirely different ways — are now leading the march back into the water. In addition to Environmental Defence’s management of the Blue Flag program, the Toronto Environmental Alliance is hosting an art exhibit, beginning next week, that examines (and maybe even promotes) beach culture in Toronto.
Long ago there was such a thing. Perhaps some day it will return.