Summer of no-swim days? Advisories up this year in Ottawa

Weeks of persistent rain and issues with flooded beaches have resulted in more swim bans than each of the previous two years — and summer isn't quite over yet.

Numbers show no-swim advisories have doubled in last 2 years

An City of Ottawa lifeguard keeps an eye on swimmers at Mooney's Bay Beach, one of the City's beaches plagued by no swim days in 2017. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Most of the city's public beaches are safe for swimming Sunday, but you won't find a green flag flying at Westboro Beach. The city's daily water quality test shows there is a high level of E. coli bacteria, prompting a no-swim advisory. 

The scene at Westboro beach is a familiar one for anyone keeping track of no-swim advisories for beaches across the city since June. 

Weeks of persistent rain and issues with flooded beaches have left Ottawa with a summer of no-swim days. 

In fact, we've had more swim bans than each of the previous two years, according to Ottawa Public Health — and summer isn't quite over yet.

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) has issued 64 no-swim advisories so far this year, more than double the 30 advisories put out in 2015. There were 48 advisories issued in 2016. 

A no-swim advisory is issued when bacteria levels exceed 200 E. coli per 100 ml of water, or if there are two consecutive days of levels over 100 E. coli per 100 ml of water. 

According to Sunday's bulletin, the bacteria level at Westboro Beach is 344, while the levels at other city beaches are 72 or lower. The daily results are based on water samples taken from the previous day. 

"When a no-swim advisory is in effect, people should not swim due to the risk of getting a skin, ear, throat or even gastro-intestinal illness," reads a notice on the Ottawa Public Health website. However, people are free to swim at their own risk. 

OPH tests the water daily at five beaches: Mooney's Bay, Britannia Beach, Westboro Beach, Petrie Island East Bay, and Petrie Island River Beaches. 

Record rainfall in Ottawa

Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown said she's not surprised at all by the high number of advisories issued this year by the city's public health department. 

"Those water quality results are very linked to rainfall. And as most people know, we've had record rainfall amounts this spring. So, unfortunately, that means more pollution going into the river," Brown told CBC News. 

Children play inside the supervised area at Britannia Beach on July 16, 2017. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

While polluted water means no swimming for humans, the pathogens and viruses that come along with raw sewage spilling into the waterway has harmful effects on aquatic life. 

Brown, also an environmental engineer, said her two kids, aged 11 and 15, love spending time in the Ottawa River, but she has to make informed decisions about which beach to take them to. Beaches near Petrie Island, for example, are the most downstream so they tend to have a greater risk of having poor water quality, she said. 

But the results from Ottawa Public Health are always one day behind. 

It's one of the reasons why Ottawa Riverkeeper launched the "We Want to Know" campaign earlier this summer. The campaign calls for the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau to notify residents in real-time when raw sewage is being released into the river. 

Cities like Sudbury and Kingston already warn residents when their combined sewage tanks send untreated sewage into their waterways. 

"We want people to know where it's going in and when it's going in," Brown said.

"If the public starts to understand how often this happens, you start to get a much better understanding of the problem and you want to figure out how to solve it."

As part of its Ottawa River Action Plan, the city is building the Combined Sewage Storage Tunnel (CSST) to prevent untreated sewage from flowing into the waterway. The $232.3-million project is slated to be completed in 2020.