For Canada Water Week, March 16-22, Environmental Defence is celebrating water! Each day this week, we’ll post a new blog that will explore how our programs all have a connection with water. Today, we’re featuring our Blue Flag Program and how the flag recognizes and celebrates excellent water quality at beaches across the country.

For so many Canadians, the summer is synonymous with “beach season.”

I can’t imagine my childhood without summer days spent at the beach. Whether I was taking swimming lessons or splashing around with friends, you couldn’t keep me out of the water.

Now I am lucky enough to manage the Blue Flag program, an international eco-certification that celebrates clean and sustainably managed beaches. Water is an important part of the Blue Flag program. To be awarded a Blue Flag, beaches must meet strict criteria for environmental management and education, safety and services, and not least of all, water quality. When you see a Blue Flag flying at a beach, you know that it consistently has excellent water for swimming.

Municipalities have to apply annually for their beach to receive a Blue Flag and applications hinge on water quality data. At least 80 per cent of E.coli results must meet provincial guidelines. If the water quality is not up to the Blue Flag standard, we will help the municipality identify the underlying problem or connect them with experts who can.

If a beach’s water quality isn’t up to snuff, the first step is to identify the source of contamination. We do a feasibility study for any municipalities interested in applying for a Blue Flag for their beach. And, often, observations made during the study will point to what is the likely suspect.

The best way to confirm this is through DNA testing of E.coli. E.coli is an organism that lives in the guts of warm-blooded animals, so it is used an “indicator” organism to detect the presence of fecal matter, which can carry viruses and bacteria. E.coli can come from gulls, geese, wildlife and dogs, in addition to human sewage which tends to come from combined sewage outflows, leaky septic tanks or sewage discharges.

Knowing where the E.coli comes from is key to devising a strategy for cleaning up the water. And the good news is the hard work pays off. The City of Toronto is a good example. From 1999-2003 Toronto’s beaches were open an average of 51 per cent of the summer. This number jumped to 67 per cent from 2004-2008 after the adoption of the Wet Weather Flow Master Plan (WWFMP) in 2003. In 2005 Toronto was able to achieve Blue Flag certification, and now it has eight Blue Flag beaches which are open an average of 97 per cent during the swimming season. The Blue Flag tells people that the water is safe to swim in, and now, so many more people are connected with Toronto’s waterfront.

By investing in clean, swimmable beaches, a community is investing in people. Beaches promote healthy outdoor recreation, a connection with nature, and spending time playing on, in and beside water. No one should be deprived of that experience.