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The Tyee's Guide to Vancouver's Cleanest (and Dirtiest) Beaches

Plunge into summer with a comprehensive guide to fecal coliform levels.

Jesse Donaldson 18 Jul

Jesse Donaldson is an author, journalist, photographer and one of the founding members of The Dependent Magazine. His first book, This Day in Vancouver, was recently shortlisted for a B.C. Book Prize. Find his previous articles published in The Tyee here.

Rejoice, Vancouverites! Summer has arrived at last.

But, before you celebrate this stretch of uninterrupted sunshine with a day by the water, here's something you may want to pack next to the towel and sunscreen: the Greater Vancouver Regional District Water Quality Laboratory's analysis of the area's cleanest (and dirtiest) beach water.

Each year, between May and August, local waters are tested against Canada's water quality guidelines. As mandated by the federal government, 200 is the maximum number of fecal coliform bacteria allowed per 100 millilitres of water in "primary contact" recreation areas -- otherwise known as swimming beaches. The results, taken weekly and averaged over the previous 30 days, are regularly posted online.

While some results are predictable, each year delivers a few surprises. Without further ado, here's Vancouver Coastal Health's most recent breakdown, measured in bacteria per 100 mL of water. (Note: this list doesn't include beaches in Richmond or West Vancouver):

Top five cleanest

Third Beach/Locarno: 14
Jericho: 15
Wreck Beach East/Cates Park: 18
Second/Spanish Banks: 19
Kitsilano Beach/Wreck Beach West (Acadia): 21

Top five dirtiest

Trout Lake: 147
Wreck Beach (Trail 7): 106
Sunset: 70
Deep Cove: 46
Wreck Beach (Trail 4/Tower Beach): 37*

Fecal coliform levels tend to rise as July turns into August (particularly in the more popular areas like Kits and English Bay). So far the results are largely consistent with the levels measured at this time last year; as of mid-July 2013, Cates Park, Acadia and Locarno were among the cleanest in the city, and Trout Lake, Wreck (at Trail 7) and Sunset were among the dirtiest.

Both Acadia and Locarno have topped the list of cleanest beaches every summer for four years running. Spanish Banks often makes the list, too. Unsurprisingly, Trout Lake has been one of the dirtiest primary contact areas in the region for four years running, joined consistently by Sunset and Wreck's Trail 7.

The highest numbers each year come from False Creek East (not technically classified a "primary contact" area, but connected to the Sunset and English Bay stretch nonetheless), in which bacteria counts rarely dip below the 100 mark. Its fecal coliform level currently sits at a dizzying 500. The most substantial spikes, month-by-month take place on heavily-frequented beaches like Kits and English Bay, whose numbers can range from the low-30s to the mid-100s, depending on the year and month.

Sick, real quick

According to federal government estimates, close to 100,000 Canadians get sick each year from swimming in polluted waters (between one and two per cent of all swimmers).

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.

If all this talk of contaminated beach water makes you squeamish, rest assured -- it could be (and has been) worse. Pollution on city beaches isn't a new phenomenon; a swim advisory was issued last August for Second and Sunset beaches, and back in 1958, every recreational contact area in the city was forced to close due to excessive pollution.

Prior to the 1960s, when Metro Vancouver opened its first comprehensive wastewater treatment facilities, sewage was dumped raw into False Creek and Burrard Inlet. In fact, in the early part of the 20th century, human waste washing up on Vancouver's shores was a regular news item.

"There is no denying the fact that the need of some improvement in the disposal of the city's sewage is a pressing one, and should not be ignored if the public health is to be considered," complained a 1903 article in the Province. "As matters exist now, virtually all the sewage of the city that is discharged within an area bounded by Burrard Street and Columbia Avenue is allowed to float around on the waterfront, through the sewer outlets not being carried out far enough to prevent the discharge from being deposited on the shore."

Happy swimming!

For a comprehensive list of fecal coliform levels on Metro Vancouver's beaches from 2011 to present, click here.  [Tyee]

*Updated July 18, 9:37 a.m.

Read more: Travel

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