Blame geese, not humans, for summer bummer at Ottawa beaches

The City of Ottawa fixed the issue of human sewage affecting its beaches, but a new problem has arrived in 2021: gaggles of Canada geese and their droppings.

Canada geese droppings contribute to high E. coli count, according to Ottawa Riverkeeper

Canada geese forage along the shoreline of Westboro Beach on Wednesday. (Alexander Behne/CBC)

Ottawa swimmers have faced the summer buzzkill of E. coli bacteria before, but this time human sewage isn't the culprit.

Blame it on the goose poop.

The City of Ottawa thought it had solved the bacteria problem at its worst hit beaches when it built a sewage storage tunnel to prevent sewage from overflowing and contaminating the Ottawa River.

This summer was the first for the new system, and it's working, according to Ottawa Public Health (OPH) and Ottawa Riverkeeper.

But the large Canada geese population has taken over by leaving droppings that contaminate the water, according to Larissa Holman, director of science and policy with Ottawa Riverkeeper.

WATCH | Larissa Holman on the effects of bird poop, heat and low water levels:

Goose poop causing E. coli levels to rise in Ottawa River

2 years ago
Duration 1:22
Larissa Holman, director of science and policy at Ottawa Riverkeeper, says bird poop that runs off into the Ottawa River, along with low water levels and high temperatures, is causing E. coli levels to spike this summer.

Geese droppings collect in runoff water that eventually make it into the river, while areas with lower water levels and less flow are more susceptible to high E. coli counts, said Holman. 

The problem is then exacerbated by the hot temperatures, which make it easier for bacteria to grow.

"It has a lot to do with the movement, the flow of the water in those areas, as well as the natural landscape around there," says Holman.

"If you have a beach that's more in a bay area, the water is not going to move through it in the same way, the temperatures are going to rise." 

Larissa Holman with Ottawa Riverkeeper says the geese are here to stay, and some beaches are affected more than others. (Alexander Behne/CBC)

2 beaches hit harder

Petrie Island East Bay in Orléans and Westboro Beach are both located on bays and have faced the most days of "swimming not recommended" this summer, according to public health.

More than 42 per cent of swimming days have been affected in Orléans, 30 per cent in Westboro, while each of the other city beaches has been affected less than 10 per cent of the summer.

Geese are drawn to wide open spaces like beaches to avoid potential predators, said Holman, and Westboro is quite open. Petrie Island East is hidden from the main flow of the Ottawa River, and the geese like the quiet.

An OPH spokesperson said birds in general have been identified as a frequent source of water pollution, but some beaches can handle it better than others.

At Mooney's Bay, which sits along the Rideau River, a water pump prevents bacteria from growing in stagnant water, while a pier extension directs pollution away from the swimming area at Britannia Beach along the Ottawa River.

Both beaches also have overhead wires to deter birds.

Holman says the impact of geese droppings and other pollutants can be reduced by maintaining the vegetated buffers around rivers.

Healthy, treed shorelines also provide shade to help reduce runoff and cool the water temperatures, but there is no point in trying to remove Canada geese from beaches, she said.

"That is where those birds live ... so we have to find ways to work with them ... and look at other ways that we can help positively impact water quality."

These geese like Westboro Beach because it is wide open and they can avoid potential predators, according to Holman. (Alexander Behne/CBC)


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