Some municipalities in the Eastern Townships have begun testing the water quality at their beaches themselves because they say the governmental program responsible for testing is doing a poor job.

In 2010, three-year-old Aimée Carbonneau nearly died from an E. coli infection she contracted while swimming at the Deauville public beach on the banks of Little Lake Magog.

Her kidneys almost went into failure, and while she survived, she continues to have kidney problems and may have to take medication for the rest of her life.

Sherbrooke water testing

Sherbrooke began testing its own water last year because it felt the environment ministry wasn't coming around often enough. Swimmers at a Cowansville beach on July 2 were surprised to find out the water was last tested June 18. (Radio-Canada)

At the time of this case of E. Coli, the water was being tested by the environment ministry, which tests water quality in nearly 250 municipalities.

On the day Carbonneau stepped onto the Deauville beach, fecal coliform rates were, in some areas of the water, five times higher than the allowable limit for swimming — that is, 200 fecal coliforms per 100 millilitres.

Her mother didn’t know this because a sign posted at the beach that day said the water was fine. The sign was actually posted two weeks prior; which is in accordance with provincial guidelines.

D-quality water

In reality, the water at Deauville that was posted as having A-quality water actually was a D on the day Carbonneau and her mother went to the beach. Swimmers found out the next day, because the newer test results had not yet been published.

A-quality water is considered excellent while B is good, C is passable and D is classified as polluted by the government's testing program, Environnement-Plage. 

As a result of Carbonneau’s brush with death, Sherbrooke began testing its own water last year, at more frequent intervals than the government program's testing.

Cowansville beach

The water at one Cowansville beach was given a B grade on June 18. Swimmers on July 2 were surprised to find out that was the last time the water had been tested. (Radio-Canada)

“There really is a question of reasonable diligence,” Christine Flieson, the head of Sherbrooke’s environment department, told Radio-Canada.

Magog has also disassociated itself with the provincial testing done at its beaches along Lake Memphremagog.

“We wanted more rigorous testing,” said Marie-Line Guillemette of the town’s environment department. She said the water is now tested once a week.

In Montreal, the water at public beaches is also tested once a week thanks to a long-standing water surveying program.

However, in some areas that rely on the government’s testing like Cowansville, swimmers were surprised to find out that the B-quality water they were swimming in on July 2 had last been graded June 18.

Marie-Claude Quirion brought her family to the Centre de la nature beach in Cowansville. She said she was stunned by how seldom the water there is tested.

“I thought that it was done once a week, or even more often in heatwaves. I would like it to be more often for the children because they’re drinking the water, they’ve got their eyes and noses in the water. It was hot the past few days. It should be done a lot more frequently,” Quirion said.

Government says government program is OK

The government’s environment department said its testing program is sufficient.

Nathalie Proteau, regional director of the ministry, said she wants to reassure people in the Eastern Townships that the analysts doing the testing are competent and qualified, and that the testing labs are accredited.