A year after flushgate, is Montreal ready for urban beaches?

A year after Montreal dumped almost five billion litres of untreated wastewater into the St. Lawrence River, the city is moving ahead with plans for two new urban beaches.

Swimming spots planned for Verdun, Rivière-des-Prairies–Pointe-aux-Trembles

The new Verdun beach complex, behind the Verdun auditorium, will include a park, woodlands, recreational facilities, a bike path and a library. (WAA Montréal)

A year after Montreal dumped almost five billion litres of untreated wastewater into the St. Lawrence River, the city is moving ahead with plans for two new urban beaches. 

The beaches, located in the boroughs of Verdun and Rivière-des-Prairies–Pointe-aux-Trembles, are expected to open to the public in time for the city's 375th anniversary celebrations next summer.

But questions remain about the city's capacity to handle heavy rain fall and how quickly the public can be alerted if sewer runoff contaminates the water.

Two beaches, two realities

During the summer, the city carries out water quality tests at different stations across Montreal every week.

A compilation of the results shows that both future beach sites, known as Verdun and the Plage de l'Est, often have poor water quality — usually following rain storms.

On mobile? Tap here to see a look at the water quality at the future beach sites.

Compared to the Plage de l'Est, things aren't as bad for swimmers in Verdun, where there are only about 10 nearby discharge points for wastewater.

"For about five to 10 per cent of the time, the water quality is not good and that's generally after heavy rainfalls," said Naysan Saran, a scientific programmer with Environment Canada.

Downstream in Pointe-aux-Trembles,  the site of the Plage de l'Est, water tests show a much higher frequency of coliform.

"In comparison to Verdun, there are a lot of sewage dumps upstream from the Plage de l'Est," said Saran.

"It's contaminated every other day."

Long wait times

While the city performs water quality tests regularly, it can be a long time before the public is alerted if the water is contaminated.

Daniel Green, president of the Société pour Vaincre la Pollution, knows the risks swimmers face since he measures the level of bacterial contamination during rainfalls for the borough of Verdun. 

"Right now when we do samples, we have to wait a minimum of 30 to 35 hours before we have the results," said Green.

The City of Montreal dumped some 4.9 billion litres of untreated wastewater into the St. Lawrence over the span of four days last year. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Green says Montreal needs to have a proper system in place in order to get swimmers out of the water and close the beach if necessary.

"I've seen waters in Verdun pass from swimmable to septic tank water quality in a couple of hours after a rain event," he said.

The weekly tests carried out by Montreal are insufficient and fail to protect the public, according to Green.

The City of Montreal says it is still exploring which testing method it will use and is working on a communication system in case of contamination.

Harout Chitilian, vice-president of the city's executive committee, said there are plans to do "colossal work" in the coming years to "identify which layout or structure must be set up to capture the maximum runoff" and prevent overflows into the river.


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