British Columbia

False Creek pollution 4 times level deemed safe to swim

Vancouver’s iconic glittering Science World reflects into False Creek, but, of late, that reflection is marred by a noticeable oily scum.

‘It’s an area with not a lot of tidal flushing. It’s sort of a dead end,’ says health official

Looks gorgeous doesn't it? But don't fall in False Creek near Science World in Vancouver because the pollution is high this time of year. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Dreams of a swimmable False Creek have been dashed again with pollution levels hitting highs four times, since May, above what's deemed safe for swimmers.

Animal and human fecal contamination should not exceed 200 E.coli per 100 millilitres of water, according to Vancouver Coastal Health.

But for six weeks since May, levels have exceeded 500 — hitting a high of 926 at the end of May.

Levels only topped 500 during three weeks in 2017.

And, all this, only a year after Vancouver City council passed Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer's motion aimed at making the waterway a safe place to swim by the summer of 2018.

'Dead end' does not flush out often

Randy Ash, manager of environmental health for Vancouver Coastal Health, said that the pollution spikes for many reasons — from spring runoff to boaters who pump out their waste into False Creek waters.

He said it is a "tricky business" to bust polluters and a challenging waterway to keep fresh.

"It's an area with not a lot of tidal flushing. It's sort of a dead end," said Ash.

Two retired seniors sit on a Vancouver seawall bench looking out to False Creek. (Christer Waara/CBC)

He's not sure the specific cause of the recent high E.coli spike, but admits he would choose different beaches to swim. The waterway is more popular with boaters and paddlers.

Judi Clark and Sandy Kretsch are on a New Westminster dragon boating team that practises in False Creek.

They say they can often smell the contamination and recent high levels concern them.

"Oh gross! That's scary," they said in unison, noting how they often have to spit sea water out as they furiously paddle.

The risks

Escherichia coli is a bacteria common in animal guts.

City officials admit that dreams of swimming in False Creek, the city's centrepiece waterway, are just dreams for now. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

High levels can signal a variety of other pathogens in water, some of which can cause a range of issues from rashes, to gut and lung ailments, if swallowed.

False Creek fantasy

Critics have long cited the city's sewage outfalls as the main reason making safe swimming in False Creek a "fantasy."

Last year, Philip David of Reviver Sports and Entertainment proposed a surf park and a floating pool at the end of the waterway.

But he abandoned his dream of an artificial wave pool and moved onto other U.S. municipalities, saying Vancouver needed to find a sewage solution or swimming in False Creek would remain "laughable".

Boaters who dump their holding tanks into False Creek are also often blamed.

The City of Vancouver is trying to stop this flush of sewage, oil and other bilge with an aggressive push that by next year will see tickets and fines between $250 to $10,000 for infractions.

But it is difficult to catch dumpers in the act.

Margot Davis, manager of environmental services for the City of Vancouver, hopes to turn around people's frustration and anger into a push to stop irresponsible dumpers.

"We all have a big problem here, but let's all work toward a solution," she said.

20,000 litres pumped

By Jan. 1, 2019, new bylaws will require marinas to provide boat pump-out stations and clear signs about the requirements.

The rules ban a wider range of boat discharges, and the city has beefed up enforcement.

It's also offering a free mobile boat pump-out service to properly clean out holding tanks.

They are seeing an average of five boats use the service a day — translating into 20,000 litres pumped out in 2017.

Still, pollution has spiked.

Davis says some of it comes from sewage outfalls and illegal cross-connections into storm sewers.

Heavy rainfall also overflows more sewage into False Creek. 

Then, there's the swollen Fraser River which brings its own fecal matter in spring.

So the sources vary, and there are multiple other factors that can spike fecal counts, such as hot weather.

Davis admits cleaning it up will take years, despite promises of 2018 from city councilors.

But she says the return of beavers to False Creek is, at least, a positive sign.

The city of Vancouver is targetting boaters in False Creek with a free service to pump out their sewage tanks to stop the flow of fecal matter into the waterway. (City of Vancouver)

With files from Ash Kelly and Tina Lovgreen

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