BY: Stephen Spencer Davis
When you think of a beach destination, you probably think of something a little more exotic than a strip of sand near the foot of High Park. Toronto, however, is home to 11 official beaches. But these public spaces are often overlooked and underrated. Getting to know them can be a challenge, since they’re mostly obscured by an expressway. The other trouble is that people worry about the water quality. You’ve probably thought to yourself, “Is it really safe to swim here?”

For the last time: Yes!
This summer, Toronto will fly blue flags at eight of its beaches. In Canada, the international Blue Flag program is run by Environmental Defence, and beaches must meet strict criteria to qualify for Blue Flag status: They need well-maintained bathrooms, lifeguards on duty, first aid gear at hand, and, most importantly, clean water.
Officials usually assess water quality by measuring the presence of e. coli, a type of bacterium that’s found in the guts of animals and human beings. Health Canada recommends staying out of the water if e. coli levels hit 200 colony forming units (cfu) per 100 millilitres, but Toronto follows even stricter guidelines set by the province: If e. coli levels exceed 100 cfu, a beach is marked as unsafe for swimming. And to keep their blue flag status, Toronto’s beaches have to meet this provincial standard 80 per cent of the time, the same as other spots where nobody thinks twice about jumping in, like Wasaga Beach.
Things aren’t perfect. Consider the mouth of the Humber River after a rainstorm, when sewers overflow and the city’s waste makes its inevitable descent into Lake Ontario. The water in the Humber Bay turns the colour of chocolate milk and e. coli levels at nearby beaches skyrocket. But the situation has improved vastly during the past decade: In 2005, Toronto had just four Blue Flag beaches. And before that, swimming in Lake Ontario was unthinkable for most residents. So, yeah, there are prettier beaches in more exotic locales. But none are as close to your local streetcar stop.—Stephen Spencer Davis…