New Brunswick

Water quality testing protocol expanded to 8 provincial park beaches

The New Brunswick government is expanding its water quality monitoring and advisory protocol to include eight provincial park beaches this season, and a no-swimming advisory has already been issued for New River Beach, due to high fecal bacteria counts.

No-swimming advisory issued for newly added New River Beach due to high fecal bacteria counts

New River Beach had normal water quality results earlier this month, but samples taken on May 16 showed high fecal bacteria levels. The no-swimming advisory will remain in place until subsequent tests show values within acceptable limits. (Tourism NB)

The New Brunswick government is expanding its water-quality monitoring and advisory protocol to include eight provincial park beaches this season, and a no-swimming advisory has already been issued for New River Beach because of high fecal bacteria counts.

The new protocol is based on the one established for Parlee Beach in 2017, the province's chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell announced on Friday.

That protocol came after CBC News revealed that in 2016 the government had failed to inform swimmers at the province's most popular beach of several days when fecal bacteria levels were high enough to pose health risks to children and the elderly.

The expanded protocol will include:

  • Parlee Beach being monitored daily.
  • Murray Beach being monitored three days per week.
  • Mactaquac being monitored two days per week.
  • New River Beach, Mount Carleton and Oak Bay being monitored one day per week.
  • Miscou and Val-Comeau being monitored once every two weeks.

The beaches were selected based on their popularity and because some of them had problems in the past, Russell said.

"The whole point of the testing is to be able to reassure beachgoers that we're doing what we need to do to make sure that the water is safe for swimming," said Russell.

"It is a snapshot in time. We would say that it gives a picture of what's happening."

The protocol is in accordance with national guidelines for recreational water quality, which "strike a balance between potential health risks and the benefits of recreational water use in terms of physical activity and enjoyment," Russell said.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health, compared the risk of health effects when swimming to the risks associated with other common activities, such as driving a car. (CBC)

Canadian guidelines dictate a beach should be closed to swimmers if the fecal bacteria levels from a single sample are above 70 units of bacteria per 100 ml of water, or the average of five samples (known as the geometric mean) is above 35 units per 100 ml.

Samples collected at New River Beach on May 16 ranged between 31 and 63, with a geometric mean of 48.7, prompting the no-swimming advisory.

The advisory will remain in place until subsequent tests show values within acceptable limits.

Under the protocol, water samples will be collected from five locations at each of the eight beaches and sent to an accredited lab for analysis.

The results will then be reviewed by a medical officer of health to determine if the water is suitable for swimming or if a no-swimming advisory will be issued.

The results will be available online and signs will be placed at key locations within the park.

Russell expects all of the water samples will go to the RPC lab in Fredericton, with an average turnaround time of 48 hours.

She could not say how much the program will cost.

Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, called the new monitoring protocol 'very good news,' but said the next step is to ensure water quality is protected. (CBC)

Lois Corbett, executive director Conservation Council of New Brunswick, welcomed the expanded monitoring.

"It's important that the health of young people and our senior citizens are protected at every beach," she said.

"What it does is it gives people — moms and dads, and grandmothers and grandfathers — some assurance that when the children ask them to go swimming today because it's a hot day and they need to cool down, that they can read online before they go to the great New Brunswick beaches, that's it's indeed safe enough."

While it's important to have good quality information to protect the public's health and the environment, "the next step, of course, is to go beyond information to make sure that water quality is protected … make sure there's no E. coli, no poop in our swimming waters to start with," said Corbett.

That will require making sure upstream sources aren't contaminated by municipal sewage, or runoff from farms or forest clearcuts — "a longer-term process."

Parlee Beach is New Brunswick's most popular tourism attraction. (CBC)

The Department of Health had been considering extending the testing and reporting water quality to more provincial park beaches since last June.

At that time, there was no way for New Brunswickers to know if the water was safe for swimming at beaches other than Parlee and Murray.

At every other beach and lake in the province, either the water was not tested for fecal bacteria, or it was tested but the results were not shared with the public.

"There is always a slight risk of health effects when swimming, just as there are risks associated with other common activities, such as driving your car," Russell said in the statement Friday.

There are, however, precautions people can take, such as not swallowing the water, not exposing open wounds or sores to the water, washing their hands and using shower facilities to rinse off after being in the water, she said.

With files from Gabrielle Fahmy