A program that allows beaches and marinas to trumpet their good environmental practices is helping to “get people back to the waterfront” in Ontario, says a spokeswoman for a national agency that monitors water quality.  
Sarah Winterton, education and outreach director for Environmental Defence, says the introduction of the Copenhagen-based Blue Flag program is increasing Ontarians’ trust in the quality of their water. Last year, three Lake Huron marinas became the first in North America to win the right to fly a Blue Flag, emblematic of their commitment to maintaining high environmental standards.  
Those marinas joined 11 Ontario beaches — including seven on Toronto’s Lake Ontario shore, three on Lake Huron and one on Georgian Bay — in proudly displaying their Blue Flags.  
The right to fly a Blue Flag has long been a coveted one in Europe, where the program has been going for 22 years. Several Toronto beaches became the first in Canada to be awarded Blue Flags in 2005. Last year, more than 3,400 beaches and marinas worldwide flew Blue Flags.  
Winterton says a key benefit of the program is the way it raises the public’s confidence in the quality of Ontario’s water.  
“For example, Lake Ontario gained a reputation in the past for being polluted, not good for swimming,” she tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. When a number of Toronto beaches proved they could meet Blue Flag standards, it went a long way toward increasing the public’s trust. “People are concerned about water quality when they look for a place to swim. The program is getting people back to the waterfront.” 
Worldwide program brought to Toronto
Blue Flag is operated worldwide by the non-profit Foundation for Environmental Education. It was an employee of Toronto’s municipal water division who encountered Blue Flags a few years ago during a trip to Europe, and alerted officials at Environmental Defence in Toronto. That organization then obtained the right to administer the program in Canada.  
A municipality interested in having a beach designated Blue Flag must apply to Environmental Defence. For a marina, it is the operator, be it a private individual or a municipality, that must apply. A Blue Flag is awarded for the season only, and even during the course of the season, it can be withdrawn if a problem is detected by program staff and volunteers who regularly monitor conditions.  
Last year, for example, Toronto’s beaches lost their Blue Flag status during the public workers’ strike, when toilets were closed down and garbage and recycling pickup was interrupted. 
“The program engages people in the community,” says Winterton. “It raises public confidence in knowing that you’re coming back to a marina or a beach where they maintain safe standards.”  
Gord Minielly is mayor of Lambton Shores, the municipality that encompasses the communities of Grand Bend, Port Franks and Forest in southwestern Ontario’s Lambton County. Two of the Blue Flag-winning marinas and one beach are located within its boundaries.  
Stamp of quality beach, marina good for tourism
Minielly says the town of 11,000 was delighted with the positive publicity that came with the designations and he’s looking forward to another successful tourist season, confident that those designations will be renewed in June.  
The municipality has closely monitored Grand Bend Beach’s water quality in recent years and felt it met Blue Flag’s rigorous cleanliness standards. But before a Blue Flag can be awarded, other requirements must be met. For example, information must be made available to educate beach-goers about that quality, as well as local eco-systems, and toilets, garbage and recycling pickups must meet high standards.  
“We had just spent $3 million on the beach,” says Minielly, with landscaping, a splash pad, accessible walkway and other facilities added.  
Nearby, Grand Bend municipal marina and a few miles away, the Port Franks marina, completed the municipality’s Blue Flag “hat-trick.”  
“We had a very successful year,” says Minielly. “The designation gives us a certain status. We’re well-known around southwestern Ontario but with these designations, it goes a long way toward making our visitors from Europe confident that all is well.”  
And yes, Minielly adds, he is confident that all three facilities will maintain the high standards this year that the Blue Flag program demands.  
Winterton says the addition of new facilities last year, and the announcement that several other beaches had asked to be assessed for inclusion, raised awareness and led to even more inquiries during the course of the season.  
High standards a source of community pride
The 2009 Blue Flag beaches were: Woodbine, Cherry, Hanlan’s Point, Ward’s Island, Centre Island, Gibraltar Point and Kew Balmy Beach on Lake Ontario in Toronto; the Lake Huron beaches of Sauble in the Town of South Bruce Peninsula, Station Beach in Kincardine and Grand Bend Beach; and Wasaga at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park on Georgian Bay.  
The third marina designated last year was Bayfield Marina in the municipality of Bluewater.  
Winterton hopes all of those will again meet inspection standards this year, and be joined by beaches they’ve been monitoring on Lakes Erie and Huron and Georgian Bay. She says the Niagara Region Conservation Authority has also expressed interest in having some of its beaches monitored for inclusion in the near future.  
“The program engages people within the community in a way that benefits the environment,” she says. “Once the commitment is laid down, it persists. The benefit comes from that commitment, and the recognition in the public of that commitment. People know they’re coming to a place that’s working to maintain high standards.”  
For more information about the Blue Flag program, contact Environmental Defence, at 416-323-9521 (or toll-free at 1-877-399-2333) or find Blue Flag on the web at www.blueflag.ca.