Why P.E.I. isn't testing the water-quality at provincial beaches this summer

There will be no monitoring of water quality at provincial beaches this summer, despite a commitment last year from the P.E.I. Health and Tourism departments to take steps to test some spots along the Island's south shore.

'You need to be confident that you're coming to a place where the beaches are safe'

The issue of monitoring of beach water quality was raised in the legislature by P.E.I. Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, as well as two national groups committed to beach water quality. (John Robertson/CBC)

There will be no monitoring of water quality at provincial beaches this summer, despite a commitment last year from the P.E.I. Health and Tourism departments to take steps to test some spots along the Island's south shore.

Last July, P.E.I.'s manager of environmental health said there were meetings planned with Tourism Department officials to look at provincial parks that could potentially be subject to contamination.

Many provinces are monitoring regularly so it doesn't take somebody getting sick to start investigating these water-quality issues.— Kelsey Scarfone, Blue Flag

"When we identify any areas there, we would then start discussing a risk assessment tool and a sampling protocol that could be put in place if we have concerns," Ryan Neale told CBC News.

'Insufficient evidence'

That work now appears to be on hold, a statement to CBC this week said. 

Swim Drink Fish Canada examines water quality testing protocols across Canada for its annual Beach Report. (John Robertson/CBC)

 
"The Chief Public Health Office has not linked any notifiable/reportable illnesses to recreational beach water in P.E.I. Therefore at this time, there is insufficient evidence to support a recreational beach water testing program."

The statement goes on to say that if there are complaints, the province will investigate. If harmful bacteria is found, the area would be closed for swimming and signs posted.

Raised in the legislature

The issue of monitoring of beach water quality was raised in the legislature by P.E.I. Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, as well as two national groups committed to beach water quality. 

In a report in 2017, Swim Drink Fish Canada pointed to P.E.I. as one of four provinces with no provincial protocol in place. 

When staff at the group heard P.E.I. was taking its first steps toward monitoring water quality, they said they clapped and cheered in their office.

"We thought that was just a phenomenal decision," said spokesperson Gabrielle Parent-Doliner.

'Very disappointed'

The group contacted the P.E.I. Health and Tourism departments this spring to find out more about the water testing program and was told it would not be happening after all.

Provincial South Shore beaches are across the Northumberland Strait from New Brunswick beaches that have been plagued with contamination problems. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"We were very disappointed," said Parent-Doliner.

"To have so much beach space that is not going to be monitored this year and again people are not going to know what's going on with the water quality, we were just really disappointed by that news."

Parent-Doliner points to New Brunswick where the provincial government has increased the number of provincial beaches being monitored.

"We believe 100 per cent of Canadians should have access to what the water quality is where they are getting into the water," said Parent-Doliner. 

Proactive approach

International beach certification group Blue Flag met with the P.E.I. government last summer to talk about water quality and safety at beaches. 

In New Brunswick, the provincial government has increased the number of provincial beaches being monitored. (CBC)

"Many provinces are monitoring regularly so it doesn't take somebody getting sick to start investigating these water quality issues," program co-ordinator Kelsey Scarfone said.

"It's our view that a proactive approach is the best way to go and consistent water quality monitoring, season over season, at least once a week, gives us a good picture of what that swimming water quality is like."

Parent-Doliner says her group believes 100 per cent of Canadians should have access to what the water quality is where they are getting into the water. (John Robertson/CBC)

'You need to be confident'

Bevan-Baker said he's also disappointed. 

"You need to be confident that you're coming to a place where the beaches are safe, and we could do that very easily. And I'm just not quite sure why they're not doing that," said Bevan-Baker.

International beach certification group Blue Flag met with the P.E.I. government last summer to talk about water quality and safety at beaches. (Submitted by Kelsey Scarfone)

"Bacteria levels can be in the water without necessarily causing anybody to link a particular illness to being on the beach for the day, so a complaint is not a satisfactory way of triggering this process." 

A spokesperson for the Tourism Department said it is following the advice given by professionals in the Department of Health. Neither department provided anyone for comment.

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About the Author

Nancy Russell

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca