VICTORIA PTASHNICK, Toronto Sun
When thinking of the world’s best beaches, images of Windex-blue water and sandy shores dotted with palm trees come to mind.
Exotic vacation destinations like the Caribbean, South Africa — or maybe Brazil?
Pack your bathing suit and hop on the TTC because for the second year in a row, eight of the city’s beaches have been awarded a Blue Flag.
Contrary to the perception of many Toronto residents, who choose not to swim along the city’s waterfront, the award is an indication of the highest standards for water quality and environmental factors.
That puts beaches in our neck of the woods on par with those in exotic tropical locations.
However, even in the recent scorching 35-C heat, 19-year-old Chelsea Bennett refused to take a dip in the water at Woodbine Beach.
Instead she tanned on the beach, wrinkling her nose at the prospect of setting foot in the lake.
“I don’t go in the water because I think it’s gross and dirty. I’ve always just had the mindset that I don’t wanna go in,” Bennett said.
Adjusting her sunglasses, Bennett explained she believes the water is unsafe because her parents have always told her so.
“They say the water’s dirty and if you’re going to go to the beach you should just stay on the sand,” she added.
The Blue Flag program is an internationally recognized eco-label based in Denmark.
Blue Flags designations are awarded to beaches and marinas around the globe that meet strict guidelines on water quality, environmental management, environmental education, safety and services.
The Toronto beaches that made the list this season are Bluffer’s Park Beach, Centre Island Beach, Cherry Beach, Gibraltar Point Beach, Hanlan’s Point Beach, Kew-Balmy Beach, Ward’s Island Beach and Woodbine Beach.
Brett Tryon, Coordinator for the Blue Flag program in Canada, said that beaches are evaluated on a season-by-season basis.
“The award is only good for one season, so after it’s over, the beach has to reapply for the flag and be analyzed again. It has to meet all the requirements for the award to be reissued. It makes a lot of the beaches here maintain their excellence,” Tryon says.
The city tests the water quality daily at its 11 beaches during the summer months. The samples are examined, and checked for traces of pollution and E. coli. If water tests show E. coli levels exceed the provincial guidelines of 100 E. coli per 100 ml of water, Toronto Public Health puts out a warning to stay out of the water.
Toronto’s Blue Flag beaches met the criteria for swimming, on average, 80% of the time last summer.
Tryon added she understands why many people are wary about swimming along the shoreline.
Originally from a small town, she grew up with message from family members that she should stay out of the water in Toronto.
Tyron said it’ wasn’t until she moved to Toronto and learned about the Blue Flag program that her perception changed.
“It seems like a lot of people in Ontario have this idea of their swimming water being unsafe because they’ve heard it from previous generations of their family. It’s hard to change people’s minds but that’s what the program is trying to prove,” she said.
Since the program launched in Canada, it has been making waves.
The city received its first two Blue Flags in 2005, and since then, the number has been growing.
The road to get there hasn’t been easy, though.
Michael D’Andrea, Toronto’s director of Water Infrastructure Management, said that tackling the quality of swimming water began in the 90s, when many swimming spots were deemed unsafe.
“Discharges from the old combined sewer system and our storm water were the main sources of pollution back then,” he said, adding the city didn’t know the havoc storm water was causing.
“We didn’t know then that you’re washing off what’s in the urban landscape when it rains, so all that pet feces, animal waste, bird droppings — all that stuff — is being combined with raw sewage and discharged into beaches,” D’Andrea added.
The result was beaches that were brimming with bacteria.
The city created two underground tanks to store dirty water before it ran into the eastern beaches. The water from the first tank is discharged into a sanitary sewer system and treated at a waste water treatment facility. The second tank is discharged deep into the lake — far away from the beach.
“As a result of that, Woodbine became the cleanest beach in the city,” he said.
The same process was used to clean up the water in the west end, in the Sunnyside Beach area, where huge storage tunnels were constructed.
“We were glad that worked, but we were still miffed about how more isolated beaches, like Bluffer’s Park Beach, that lacked direct pollution sources, were somehow coming up unsafe swimming most days of the summer,” D’Andrea said.
The city went on a mission to identify the bacteria that was causing the trouble and learned the culprit was animal feces.
Border collies have since been brought in regularly to chase away flocks of geese and the shore is groomed with huge machines that expose the sand to the sun so UV rays can kill bacteria.
So far so good, D’Andrea said, but getting the remaining three beaches Blue Flag status is proving to more of a headache.
“They’re all at the mouth of a river, so that causes pollution. We’re seeking approval now on a plan to crate small islands at the mouth of the Humber River that would redirect the flow away from the beaches,” he says.
If all goes as planned, Toronto’s beaches could all end up with a Blue Flag designation.
So, if you find yourself sweating it out this summer, forget the trek to Tofino or Lake of the Woods.
Your world-class beach destination could be much closer.
Swimming at T.O.’s beaches
VICTORIA PTASHNICK, Toronto Sun