Elbow River swimmers warned to 'be cautious' on section still contaminated by fecal coliforms

Alberta Health Services is reminding water enthusiasts to avoid swimming in a section of Elbow River that has been contaminated for almost two years.

Alberta Health Services says avoid wading in the waterway from Sandy Beach to 9 Ave. S.E.

This part of the river is considered contaminated with organisms that can give you gastrointestinal symptoms. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Alberta Health Services is reminding water enthusiasts to avoid swimming or wading in a section of Elbow River that has been contaminated for almost two years.

The health authority issued a contamination advisory reminder on Thursday, as the warm weather may encourage people to use that part of the river recreationally.

The advisory affects the area between Calgary's Sandy Beach and Ninth Avenue S.E. 

Fecal coliforms can cause vomiting and diarrhea, so anyone who uses the water should wash their hands afterward and avoid getting any on their face and mouth. Water should not be ingested. Washing your hands will also prevent skin, ear and eye infections.

The city says the contamination likely comes from various sources, such as wildlife waste or parks runoff, and not from a sewer leak.

'Be cautious'

After the 2013 flood, the river became more shallow in that area. The flow also slowed, so that section appeared to be an excellent spot for swimming, wading and floating.

AHS started testing the water quality in the spot in July 2016 after it became increasingly used for recreation. The tests found elevated levels of fecal coliforms.

Warning signs are now posted at common river access points, AHS said.

Because the issue is longstanding, AHS wanted to remind people as the weather warms up, Calgary zone medical officer Dr. Jason Cabaj said Thursday.

Dr. Jason Cabaj says the river is slow and shallow, so contaminants can gather in it. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

He wouldn't recommend swimming in this river, nor ingesting its water or that of other rivers.

"But if people are going to use it, be cautious about that and try to protect themselves from risk of infection," he said.

Some swimmers unaware

Margit Place was one of several people out planning to swim Thursday at the affected spot on the river.

She only learned about the health risk when CBC News told her.

"I think that's terrible. It's really concerning because the regular public probably doesn't know that," Place said. "We were planning on dipping our feet in the water today, so maybe we'll change our mind." 

Katie Unick also was there planning to swim. 

Katie Unick swims at the affected river spot but only learned Thursday about the health risk when CBC told her. (Mike Symington/CBC)

She actually did swim in it on Wednesday and felt ill, but attributed the symptoms to what she ate.

"It's unfortunate because obviously we love enjoying the Calgary rivers," Unick said. "Now we can't swim, and maybe the city can do something about it. I just don't know what."

Not sewer, says city

The city is trying to identify the source and work on measures to keep the river clean but Norma Ruecker, the microbiology and watershed assessment leader for the City of Calgary, said it is a complicated goal.

"If there was something to go and fix, we would do it," Ruecker said. "We are involved in that process but I don't believe there's one thing to fix that's just going to miraculously make the river better."

A handful of people were enjoying the sun along this section of the Elbow River on Thursday. Several planned on swimming until they learned of the advisory, now in place for two years. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Ruecker said the source isn't easily identifiable and likely comes from small sources.

"I do not believe it's linked to our sewage system. I have no reason to believe that," Ruecker said.

"We know what that looks like from other events that happened, and so that is why experience tells me this is not a sewer main we need to go fix."

Instead, it may be from a combination of rain washing dirt off streets into drain, or leftovers from park visitors relieving themselves outside of the washroom, or pet and wildlife waste.