More than a decade ago, while on vacation with his family in Ireland, the General Manager of Toronto Water spotted Blue Flags flying at beaches along the coast. He learned firsthand what the program was all about and the positive response to the flags all over Europe.
Ask anyone across the pond, and they will tell you that a Blue Flag means a clean, safe and sustainable beach or marina. Hotels are proud to claim they are located on or near a Blue Flag beach and tourists search out these beaches as travel destinations. It is a trusted symbol, which has been around for 27 years around the world. There are now more than 4,000 Blue Flags flying in 48 countries.
The Blue Flag program was the perfect fit for Toronto. The city had just adopted the Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, a long-term strategy for tackling water pollution by managing stormwater. One of the main objectives of the plan: beaches thatwere healthy for swimming. And it was already working. Practices like green roof technology, grassed ditches, permeable pavement and rain gardens reduced the amount of stormwater runoff. For those heavy rainfall events, stormwater retention tanks were built; these store the stormwater until the sewage treatment plant has capacity to treat it. This results in fewer sewage discharges into lakes and rivers. Without sewage entering the lake, the E.coli counts were much lower. Daily water testing by Toronto Public Health proved it.
But although water quality had improved, Torontonians were still skeptical that the beaches were safe for swimming. Toronto needed a measurable and highly visible indicator of success. The Blue Flag fit the bill.
In 2003, Toronto underwent a feasibility study and entered the pilot phase of the program. This required cooperation among all departments, as the program covers much more than water quality. There were rigorous criteria to be met for safety, environmental education and accessibility as well. Environmental Defence, the National Operator for the Blue Flag program in Canada, provided guidance along the way and worked closely with the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) which administers the program from Denmark.
None of this was simple in a huge organization like the City of Toronto. However, the Blue Flag Program got people working together to solve the problem of identifying the sources of pollution – and committing to make improvements in order to achieve the Blue Flag award.
In 2005, the first Blue Flags in Canada were awarded to four Toronto beaches: Cherry Beach, Woodbine Beach, Wards Island Beach and Hanlan’s Point Beach.Ten years later, Toronto now has 8 certified Blue Flag Beaches, each with a unique story to tell. Best of all, Torontonians know they have clean, safe beaches that have great water quality for swimming.