Katie Daubs
Toronto Star
Polluted, gross and geesey: Toronto’s beaches have traditionally had an image problem.
“I’ve gone swimming before, and I got a rash,” said Lee Gladysz at Cherry Beach on Monday. “I wouldn’t go in unless I had a wet suit on.”
Well, maybe this will help. On Monday, eight of the city’s 11 beaches were awarded Blue Flag status for water quality and environmental management.
Bluffer’s, Kew-Balmy, Woodbine, Cherry, Ward’s Island, Centre Island, Gibraltar Point, and Hanlan’s Point all meet strict environmental standards for bacteria and pollutant levels.
These beaches are the comeback kids. Ten years ago, the water was only swimmable 15 per cent of the time. Now they’re among the most swimmable in the world, according to Blue Flag Canada.
“Get down and hop in the water, it’s great,” said Aidan Grove-White, the organization’s Canadian coordinator. “It’s a shame that more people don’t do it.”
To meet Blue Flag criteria, beaches must be free from industrial or sewage discharges, and have 80% of their E. coli readings at or below 100 colony forming units per 100 mL water, which is the provincial standard. The beaches cannot have oil film, tarry residue, or glass floating in the water, and water must be tested regularly.
On Monday, a gaggle of geese and standup paddle surfers were the only signs of life in the water at Cherry Beach. A Tropicana juice bottle, empty Cheezies bag and bubble wrap lapped against the shoreline. The odd pile of goose feces lay on the sand. Not exactly Club Med.
“There’s too much debris,” said Dana Cochrane.
“As soon as I see other people (swimming), I’ll try it,” said Sofia Martins.
“I’d go, but nobody else will go with me,” said Mark Brown.
In trying to draw people into the water, the city faces a battle. Memories of the past, when Toronto’s waste water and storm water would overflow into the lake during heavy rain, still linger.  
“It’s amazing how much the water quality has improved, in a really short period of time,” said Grove-White, who uses Toronto as an example when he speaks about the program internationally. “The city staff who have worked on it deserve a real round of applause.”
In the last decade, the city has built more storage containers to capture the combined sewer overflow that used to be released into the lake, said Lou Di Gironimo, the general manager of Toronto Water.
At Bluffer’s, city staff worked with conservation authorities to construct berms and dunes to divert marsh bacteria away from the beach. At other beaches, they employ the most advanced scientific solution available: Dogs.
“We run dogs on beaches to push the geese out,” Di Gironimo said
Some Toronto beaches might never fly a Blue Flag. Marie Curtis, Sunnyside and Rouge are located near river mouths.
That means bacteria and other contaminants come from a larger drainage area, including agricultural land, outside of the city’s control. In the case of the Rouge, bacteria come from a large marshland that the city would not want to disrupt, Di Gironimo said. The beaches are all still swimmable, but more prone to high bacteria counts after a heavy rain.
Beaches must apply for Blue Flag status each season. This year, 16 beaches and three marinas were certified by an independent jury including Ontario beaches Grand Bend beach and Wasaga Beach Provincial Park. Grove-White and the team at Blue Flag consult with communities to make sure they meet the standards before they apply for the status, as nobody likes a public shaming.
Grove-White is very impressed with Toronto’s turnaround. He knows a lot of people still aren’t sure. Lee Gladysz, for one, will only go swimming off the island.
“We’re an environmental not for profit, and we don’t mince words,” Grove-White said. “When we say it’s good, we really mean it.”