The North Saskatchewan River is shedding its grimy reputation and earning acclaim as a swimmer's paradise, thanks to a new water monitoring project. 

For years, the river has been called polluted, but a project by North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper and and Swim Drink Fish Canada is hoping to change those perceptions and encourage more Edmontonians to take the plunge.

The groups have launched a monitoring program which provides weekly updates on some of the more popular swimming holes in the river valley.

"It's actually much cleaner that some of our lakes, depending on when you're swimming," said Hans Asfeldt, who is responsible for the water monitoring program.

"For people that are looking for a place to swim, a place to enjoy the sun and the water, there are absolutely opportunities to that in Edmonton."

The program monitors water quality at the Laurier boat launch, the Capilano boat launch and the Fort Edmonton footbridge every Tuesday.

Results are posted to the Riverkeeper website and Twitter account. Each location is coded: green for when it's safe, and red for when E. coli levels surpass recommended levels. 

Conditions can change quickly in the swift-moving river, Asfeldt said, but water quality is usually favourable.

'People tend to find the hidden gems'

"We've been promoting recreation and hoping to raise awareness that the water is clean enough under the right conditions," Asfeldt said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

"People tend to find the hidden gems and the places that are best for swimming." 

For years, most Edmontonians wouldn't be rushing to dip their toes in the river, but people are starting to recognize that its recreational potential has been seriously underrated, said Asfeldt.

Edmonton's hidden beach

A new beach has surfaced on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

When he started swimming in the river a few years ago, the river valley was a lonely place.

Now, once-neglected riverbanks are busy with paddlers, boaters and anglers, he said.

Among those hot spots is a new beach in Cloverdale. A happy accident, the new beach was the unintended consequence of LRT bridge construction.

The not-so-secret stretch of pristine white sand has become popular with sunbathers and swimmers.

The Fort Edmonton footbridge sandbar is also a regular favourite for river users, said Asfeldt. 

"We've seen the numbers really start to climb," he said.  "There is a great sandbar and on a sunny day, there are dozens and dozens of people out there."