'Let them swim': Yes, you can safely take a dip in the Rideau River

The pandemic has given people more reason to swim along the Rideau River throughout Ottawa, and experts say the waterway is a safe place for a dip if people take certain precautions.

River is safe to swim 'in most places', according to local experts

Ottawa had a large selection of beaches along the Rideau River when Katherine Rupert and John Pearson were spotted swimming here in 1955. (City of Ottawa Archives)

The pandemic has given people more reason to swim along the Rideau River throughout Ottawa, and experts say the waterway is a safe place for a dip if people take certain precautions.

Four City of Ottawa beaches have reopened, including the one along the Rideau at Mooney's Bay where water is tested daily. Swimmers say the beach isn't the only launching point along the 146-kilometre waterway, though, which runs from Smiths Falls, Ont., to downtown Ottawa where it flows into the Ottawa River.

Banu Örmeci, a Carleton University professor with a specialty in water, wastewater treatment and pollution, swims in the river regularly near her home in Manotick.

She has done her homework, too, checking water quality reports from the Rideau River Conservation Authority, and even doing her own analysis on E. coli levels in the water.

"People look at it and think, 'Oh it's dirty. It's yucky.' You know what? In most places, it is not," said Örmeci, pointing out there are no wastewater treatment plants or industrial discharges up river.

Banu Örmeci, who teaches at Carleton University, swims regularly in the Rideau River near her home in Manotick. (Supplied by Banu Örmeci)

A little closer to Mooney's Bay, swimmers like Thara Hanif prefer to kayak and paddle-board to avoid putting her head under water.

"My sister just asked me, 'Can we jump in?' I said, 'You can as long as you don't get anything in your mouth,'" said Hanif.

Dan Chenier, who heads the city's recreation department, encourages residents to swim at a supervised beach where there are lifeguards and water quality testing by OPH, instead of other spots along the river.

Martha Robinson from Ottawa Public Health also said their website has tips on how to avoid getting sick while swimming.

They warn of bacteria and microscopic parasites, which can lead to skin, eye, ear, nose or throat infections, or a "gastrointestinal illness," and advises people to avoid swallowing water, not to swim with an open wound, and "consider postponing swimming after heavy rainfalls" due to pollutants that can flow into the river from runoff.

Most beaches decommissioned in years past

The City of Ottawa used to operate beaches at Brewer Pond, Brighton Park, Brantwood Park, an intriguingly-named "Dutchy's Hole" next to Strathcona Park, and an outdoor river-fed pool in New Edinburgh Park, until they were decommissioned in the 1970s, according to Chenier.

He said low water currents and stagnation along the river, as well as stricter public health water quality standards led to the closures, and they are now meant for boaters, not swimmers.

Brighton Park Beach is seen here on July 4, 1955 during a children's swim class. (City of Ottawa Archives)

One current water safety concern for Örmeci and Frances Pick, a biology and environmental science professor at the University of Ottawa, is algae blooms in the river caused by high nutrient levels. 

Blue-green algae produce toxins that can be lethal to thirsty dogs, says Pick.

"Such blooms in the Rideau can arise under joint conditions of both heat wave and … drought," said Pick. "It's possible we will see this in this summer … but for now all is good."

She says water conditions are actually much better than in the 1970s when the city decommissioned the other beaches.

Frances Pick, who teaches at the University of Ottawa, says the Rideau River 'is in much better shape than it was in the 60s and 70s.' (Supplied by Frances Pick)

'Now it's clean ... er'

Hanif and other swimmers say they have seen people run out of their homes and jump right into the water with no hesitation.

"It used to be dirty. Now it's clean ... er," said Vance Trudeau, who jumped in along a stretch just downstream from Billings Bridge on Bank Street.

Trudeau, who showers after he leaves the river, said the Rideau's dirty reputation has kept people out, but that's changed this spring and summer.

Ottawa Public Health has to be cautious with its water safety warnings, experts say, but overall the water is safe.

"Let them swim. Let them have fun," said Örmeci.

Vance Trudeau goes for a dip in the Rideau River between Windsor Park and Brighton Beach Park, just downstream from Billings Bridge in Ottawa. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)


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