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Monday, July 18, 2005

Simcoe beaches - Water quality

Keeping everything beachy

Published: Sun, Jul 17th, 2005

When Nicole Andison and her family made the decision to move to Barrie three months ago, the city's beaches were a big part of the reason why.

"The house we were in had a pool and the one we moved to in Barrie didn't," says Andison, as she and her two-and-a-half-year-old twins, Alex and Cole, leave Centennial Park. "It was really important for us to have access to water and the waterfront is spectacular. So, we really felt that we would be using the beaches regularly."

While the youngsters are not quite at the swimming stage, they like to play in the sand and walk through the shallow water. They will definitely be regular fixtures on the waterfront this summer, says Andison.

There's no doubt about it, this dry, hot weather has been perfect for swimming and Barrie beaches have been packed on a daily basis.

But this seemingly perfect weather has created some imperfect bathing conditions this year, especially at Centennial Park, Barrie's busiest beach.

While Centennial normally boasts good swimming conditions, city environmental officials say it has more tests that come back with unacceptable levels of bacteria than other city beach.

"We have the most problems at Centennial because of its location," says Melissa Hill, senior environmental officer for the City of Barrie.

"Everything just kind of gets stuck there. I think the make up of (Kempenfelt) Bay and because Centennial is right in the centre of the bay, when the wind is going in the right direction all of the water just kind of pools there."

Run-off from city streets during heavy rain also play a factor, as does the number of bathers, and bird and dog feces. Bacteria such as E. coli is also naturally found in the environment and rests at the bottom of all bodies of water.

"If you have high waves stirring everything up and the water becomes very cloudy then what it does is suspends the E. coli that is found in the sediment," explains Bernie Mayer, manager of the safe water program at the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. "After a heavy rainfall and a lot of high wave action, we've got more E. coli being introduced into the water and we're stirring up what's already there."

"We also have fish and other animals that live in the water as well and they're doing their business in the water so that's going to contribute.

Decaying vegetation will also contribute to E. coli."

When Barrie was on the receiving end of near-tornado weather activity and torrential rain on June 9, the result was an approximate two-week closure of Centennial Beach, Minet's Point and Johnson Beach when bacteria levels exceeded 1,000 E. coli per 100 mL of water (the acceptable level is under 100 E. coli per 100 mL of water).

"Not all storm drains empty into the lake but the ones close to downtown empty into the bay," says Mayer.

"It normally doesn't cause a problem but because we had the torrential downpour ... we did have some houses - because of the storm - that had sewage back up and then there is always the potential for some of that getting into the storm drains, as well, and ending up in the lake."

At that time, the bacteria levels at Tyndale, Gable Place and Wilkins Beach were not as elevated but high enough to post advisories.

More recently, (at the time of this paper's editorial deadline) advisory postings for Centennial Beach and Minet's Point were just removed, indicating acceptable levels for swimming after a week of elevated bacteria levels.

"We don't do anything on our part (to change the bacteria levels)," says Hill. "It's just a natural process that kind of flushes itself out and the levels go back to normal. It could be a change in the wind current or wave action stirring everything up. The bacteria levels just kind of level themselves out."

Each Barrie beach has six samples taken every week. Barrie has two co-op students who take a boat out into approximately a metre of water and, using a pole with a plastic bottle at the end, scoop up the water sample. Each of the six samples is taken at different spots. The samples are then sent to the provincial laboratory in Orillia for testing.

"As soon as we get an adverse result, the health unit advises us so we immediately go out and re-sample that location," notes Hill. "If the levels are fine, we test the next week."

The lab analyzes each sample for E.coli bacteria only because it is the most specific indicator of fecal pollution.

If the water sample shows a geometric mean of higher than 100 E. coli, an advisory is posted at the beach that warns the public that there are elevated counts of E. coli and there is a greater chance of an eye, nose or ear infection or gastrointestinal or stomach illness as a result of swimming.

The geometric mean is used rather than a normal arithmetic average because it reduces the biasing effect of occasional extreme readings.

A closure is posted when a catastrophic event occurs or an immediate risk to health is present, such as sewage or chemical spills or a torrential rainstorm.

If you choose to swim during an advisory (you are prohibited from swimming during a closure), avoid ducking your head or swallowing the water, say officials at the health unit.

Unfortunately, Hill often sees people swimming when there is a posting.

"I'm not sure why it is, maybe negligence of not reading the signs. They're a fairly decent size so you can't miss them," she surmises. "I guess if they have kids and they're running towards the water, they're more focused on the water and the kids than if there is a posting."

That excuse doesn't sit well with Andison who says she would not let her two young children swim at a posted beach under any circumstances.

"I think that's actually nuts. I think that it's irresponsible and there's no way I would risk it. There's no way I would let two young kids whose immune systems aren't fully developed to be subjected to that."

If you develop red and itchy eyes, an ear infection or upset stomach after swimming in a lake or river, contact your doctor, advises Mayer.

"There's always the possibility that it could become serious particularly if you get an ear infection. That could lead to other complications, particularly in young children."

Young children are considered more at risk than older children and adults because they are more likely to have their head under water and usually stay in shallow water where the concentration is higher.

The health unit posts beach advisories and closures on its Web site at There is also background information on the Web site that may help determine if you should swim in a particular body of water.

Or, you can call Health Connections at 721-7520.


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