Let’s Change the Conversation About Our Lakeshore

I want to change the conversation about our city’s recreational waters. Yes, improvements need to be made. But water along Toronto’s shore is cleaner than most other urban centres, and cleaner than many world-famous beaches.

Part of our city’s nature is to be relentlessly self-critical, and this is no more true than in our understanding of our lakeshore. This self-critical side has its benefits – it keeps us improving – but unfortunately it can corrupt our narrative, making people think completely untrue and overly negative things about our lakefront.

Let’s change the conversation.  Let’s stop collectively spending billions on cottages.  Let’s stop wasting fuel commuting to nature every weekend.  Let’s stop thinking world-class water recreation is only for the rich (take the bus to Cherry Beach!).   Yes, let’s improve the quality of our water treatment, but in the meantime let’s remember we can swim in our own metaphorical backyards.

Let’s find in our own city our wild and living and beautiful spaces.

The Case for Believing Toronto’s Recreational Waters are Excellent:


  1. Toronto (and Ontario generally) has one of the water quality standards in the world.  Our standards are twice as strong as Vancouver’s, and ten times more stringent than the EU standard.
  2. Our wastewater treatment facilities, for all their faults, are better than those in most major Canadian cities.  Vancouver, Halifax, and Victoria all dump sewage into their waters as a matter of daily practice.
  3. We test at least as frequently for swimming water quality as other Canadian jurisdictions (more often than most), and certainly more frequently than nearly all beaches overseas. In the swimming months, our beaches are tested daily and results for all city beaches are posted daily on a free app.
  4. Most beaches around the world simply aren’t tested at all.  Many parts of the world, including tropical tourism destinations, don’t have proper sewage treatment.  In these places, sewage is dumped untreated right into coastal waters.  Tourists just have to hope that the sewage outfall pipe is far enough away from their beach hotel to avoid swimming sewage. (And folks on beautiful cottage country lakes in Ontario should hope that none of their thousands of neighbours’ septic tanks leak…)


Other Canadian cities with better environmental reputations have way bigger problems:

“Today, Victoria dumps an average of 82 million litres of raw sewage daily into our world class coastal waters.  This pollution harms our oceans, including salmon, shellfish, otters and orcas.  Our community now has the opportunity to create a sewage treatment system that will protect human health and our environment.”
– Source: Victoria Sewage Alliance (http://www.victoriasewagealliance.org)

According to The Tyee:
“130 million litres per day. British Columbia’s capital is one of the last major cities north of San Diego to dump all of its untreated waste (including pesticides, street runoff and pharmaceuticals) into the ocean.”

Sometimes their sewage is even unscreened – meaning paper and sanitary items make it into the water:

And one of the major outfalls, Clover Point, is near some of the toniest neighbourhoods of Victoria, including Oak Bay – and the pipe dumps its waste only 1.1km offshore.

Vancouver has chosen a safety threshold that allows for twice as much fecal bacteria as Toronto’s standard. Even then, the city releases data once per week, and it mostly relies on monthly averaged data – obscuring days when the count is very high. In Toronto, we have a more rigorous data system, and a free City of Toronto app for beach water quality – again, where data with a much more stringent threshold – is posted daily.

To get the averaged results, authorities in Vancouver use a geometric mean calculation, which “tends to dampen the effect of very high or low values.” A swimmer who got sick on a day where E. coli counts exceeded safe levels would not be comforted by the knowledge that, in the weeks that followed, the water was safe.

E. coli readings in Flase Creek, a popular paddling spot in Vancouver, are literally hundreds of times higher than, say, daily values at Cherry Beach.

According to The Tyee, “Metro Vancouver annually discharges 440 billion litres of wastewater into local waters from five different treatment facilities. Provincial standards require all plants to provide both primary and secondary treatment, however, Iona and Lions Gate — the two which service Vancouver proper — haven’t yet been upgraded to that status.”

The City of Vancouver website does not explain what they mean by primary treatment, but according to the World Bank, primary treatment only “includes screening to trap solid objects and sedimentation by gravity to remove suspended solids. This level is sometimes referred to as ‘mechanical treatment.'”  Which means much of Vancouver’s wastewater is screened, but does not go through a much more rigorous secondary treatment process (like Toronto’s).  Fecal matter is  dumped into Burrard Inlet daily as a matter of course. (http://water.worldbank.org/shw-resource-guide/infrastructure/menu-technical-options/wastewater-treatment)

Vancouver’s water quality in some areas is so routinely bad that they call some of their beaches “non-swimming beaches.”

Halifax discharged its sewage untreated into its harbour for decades. And even after it built a sewage treatment plant in 2008, the flow of sewage didn’t stop. Because of construction issues, untreated sewage flowed into the harbour from 2010 until as late as December 2014 (and it probably still does today).

Thinking of a Trip to Exotic Beaches?
Though the EU claims “excellent water quality at most of Europe’s bathing sites,” their standards are far lower than Toronto’s. According to the Revised Bathing Water Directive of 2006, which are the most recent standards, a bathing site can get an “excellent quality” rating with an E. coli count (cfu/100 ml) of 500, and “good quality” with 1000.

Such a standard is so lax – 10 times more lenient than Toronto’s – it is hardly worth publishing.

The Caribbean:
Poorer nations have little money for sewage treatment. Often, settlements don’t even have sewage service, let alone have their effluent treated.

According to the UN:
“In the Bahamas, 15.6% of the population has access to sewage collection services and 44% of sewage treatment plants are in poor condition.”

And in Cancun, Mexico? “The wastewater is often discharged directly into lagoons and bays such as Chetumal Bay and Nitchupé Lagoon in Cancun, Mexico.” Canadians spend thousands to fly to Cancun, and because we don’t take a scientific view of things, we assume the water there is clean when sewage is dumped untreated.

What About Toronto?
There are certainly issues with our city’s handling of wastewater, as has been well-documented by the good folks at the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. Notably, our unfortunate use of bypass at our aging, if still good, water treatment plants during storms.

But we have come a long way.  And if you take a scientific view, if you consider evidence not assumptions, the quality of our recreational water is generally some of the best in the world – better than in Europe, better than the Caribbean, better than in Vancouver, a place known for its pristine recreation. We have adopted some of the highest standards in the world, we test the most frequently, and publicize high bacteria values (and now sewage bypass) more than any other major jurisdiction.

On top of that, it’s beautiful. It’s nearby. It’s part of our living city. Come and join me – and the beavers! The water’s fine!