Port Stanley can now claim status as a world-class beach, the first to win Blue Flag distinction on once-maligned Lake Erie. The Central Elgin community has been working toward the designation for three years as it improves its water quality, safety and ecology. “It’s international and it’s something to crow about,” said Central Elgin Mayor Tom Marks. “It’s like a five-star hotel — there are expectations you have to meet.”
Those expectations include swimmer -safe water quality during at least 80% of the previous summer season, and a demonstrably clean beach. It’s a long way from the years when Lake Erie was so polluted that some beaches were covered stem to stern with algae slime, or from recent seasons when slight rainfalls would send E. coli levels soaring. “Lake Erie certainly has been making an impressive resurgence,” said Nick Rolfe of Environmental Defence, co-ordinator of the eco-brand Blue Flag program in Canada.
Some other Lake Erie communities would likely meet the Blue Flag standards if they were to apply, Rolfe said. None others have, so far. Port Stanley tried in 2008, but was stymied by too many days of water unsuitable for swimming.
All told, 15 beaches and three marinas gained or regained Blue Flag status for the year. In Southwestern Ontario, they include beaches and marinas in Grand Bend and Bayfield as well as the marina in Port Franks. That’s up from 11 designated beaches and three marinas last year. Municipalities must apply or re-apply each year. In order to qualify, communities need to score well on 33 criteria.
In Port Stanley, Marks said the victory is a tribute to the hard work of the late Sylvia Hofhuis, a longtime Port Stanley resident and mayor of Central Elgin until her death last March. “I have to give full credit to Sylvia.” Marks said. “It was a goal of hers (and) she would take great pride in that.” Port Stanley improvements in recent years include wheelchair accessibility, more lifeguards, recycling bins and signs telling visitors not to feed gulls. Even so, the balance is precarious enough that water quality deteriorates after heavy rainstorms: contaminants stir up from the lake bottom at the same time as other pollutants are carried into the lake from rivers and creeks. E.coli levels higher than 100 E. coli per 100mL of water are considered unhealthy for swimming.
“Certainly the lakes have been churned up” during the past week’s rains and may have skewed water readings, Marks said. It takes 24-48 hours for water samples to be analyzed, a time lag that could mean a “good” or “poor” water rating is outdated by the time it becomes public.
Natan Somer, Huron County health inspector in charge of water quality testing, said Huron started sampling last week at 14 public beaches. Five beaches in Huron County logged excessive E. coli levels in last week’s tests — the area is prone to farm runoff entering the lake — although its Blue Flag beaches were well within the acceptable range. Somer said the county is working on communicating results better with a revamped website that includes maps with beach amenities and water quality information (http://www.huroncounty.ca/health/beach-home), as well as a Twitter account (Twitter.com/huronbeachinfo) to augment its beach info phone line (519-482-5119 ext. 2501).
Rolfe said Blue Flag designations help drive visitors to healthy beaches and help remind local residents of the importance of clean water sources. Marks said he expects a formal flag-raising ceremony at the Port Stanley main beach later this month.
BLUE FLAG

An international eco-beach symbol earned by more than 3,400 beaches and marinas in 41 countries.
33 criteria include environmental education and management, water quality, safety, services.
15 beaches and three marinas in Ontario win Blue Flags for this year.
Southwestern Ontario designations: Port Stanley main beach (Lake Erie), Grand Bend beach, Bayfield main beach, Kincardine station beach, Sauble Beach (all on Lake Huron). Marinas in Bayfield, Grand Bend, Port Franks (all on Lake Huron).
Candidate (probationary) beaches in Southwestern Ontario: Canatara Park in Sarnia, Rotary Cove beach in Goderich.