Toronto should test water quality in its inner harbour, says an organization that sampled the water at three locations this summer to identify pollution hotspots.
In a report released Wednesday, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper says water samples collected at Bathurst Quay failed to meet E. coli bacteria standards set by the province 78 per cent of the time, while water samples collected at Rees Street Slip met standards 85 per cent of the time.
Bathurst Quay, in particular, has a sewage debris problem, it said.
Swings in water quality show that regular testing is necessary, says Krystyn Tully, co-founder of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.
"We need swimmable water in the harbour," she told CBC Toronto on Wednesday.
"Even if people aren't swimming, because people are touching the water they are coming into contact with it."
In the report, the organization calls the city to test water quality in Toronto Harbour in "key recreational water use locations" and share those results with the public through its various information sources.
It also calls on the city to issue real-time alerts to let water users know sewage overflows occurs. And it wants the city to clean sewage debris when members of the public or businesses report concerns.
"People who are thinking about using the harbour for the first time may not be aware of the risk posed by sewage outfalls and high bacteria levels," the report says.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper says the city monitors water quality at 11 beaches from June to Labour Day and posts the results on its SwimSafe website, on beach signage, and by telephone hotline.
It says boaters, especially those in the inner harbour, should have access to the same water quality information as swimmers.
"Many are using small craft, such as kayaks, and submerge their heads fully in Harbour waters. They are often in the lake near sewage outfall locations, where water quality can change daily."
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper said it tested water quality every week from May 17 to Sept. 6 at three locations: Bathurst Quay by the Waterfront Community Centre; Rees Street Slip at Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre; and Marina 4 by the former Purina PawsWay building.
The spots were chosen because they are popular with boaters and paddlers and close to sewage outfalls, which it says are a problem because they routinely dump sewage and rainwater laced with bacteria, oil, chemicals and debris into the harbour.
City officials, however, says the recommendations are not realistic.
In a statement released Wednesday, Howard Shapiro, associate medical officer of health, said testing of the inner harbour is outside the scope of Toronto Public Health's mandate.
"The public health impacts of recreation on open water (as opposed to beaches) require further research to determine the need and standards for this kind of testing," he said.
Lou Di Gironimo, general manager of Toronto Water, said implementing a real-time alert system would be a "very expensive undertaking."
"It would cost millions of dollars for Toronto," he said.
"The city's strategy is to fund critical infrastructure projects ... that reduce and will ultimately eliminate combined sewer overflows into the inner harbour. Spending that money on a monitoring program instead would delay fixing the real problem and would not tell us what we don't already know: water in the Inner Harbour often contains pollutants."
Don't swim in the inner harbour, city says
Di Gironimo said members of the public should only swim at supervised beaches and should not swim during or 48 hours after it rains.
He said the city urges people not to swim in the inner harbour because of polluted water that comes from the tributaries of the Don River that flow into the inner harbour; polluted storm water that travels along the city's paved surfaces before draining into watercourses, poor circulation of water that occurs in all marinas and harbours, combined sewer overflows and general litter.
As for cleaning up sewage debris along the waterfront, Di Gironimo said Toronto Harbour and Lake Ontario waters are the responsibilities of the provincial and federal governments, while the city is responsible for managing municipal programs only, including sewer infrastructure and beach property.
"Municipal operations, such as sewer infrastructure, do have an impact on water quality and while there are many plans that are just starting to be implemented, many projects are already in place and benefits have been realized."