In 2017, North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper conducted a recreational water quality monitoring program based in the City of Edmonton. Continue reading to learn about important considerations you should make when deciding whether or not to swim in the river. The findings from Riverkeeper’s water testing in 2017 on the North Saskatchewan River are outlined in our report, Lessons of an Accidental Beach.
The program featured weekly water sampling at Fort Edmonton Footbridge Sandbar and Cloverdale Beach as well as the Laurier Park and Capilano Park boat launches. Results were posted on our Swim Guide website and app as well as on our blog. The monitoring program makes recreational water quality data available to the public on an ongoing basis as soon as results are available each week (samples take up to 48 hours to process). Monitoring is conducted throughout the summer months and provides water quality information to recreational water users on the North Saskatchewan River including swimmers, boaters, rowers, paddleboarders, anglers, and others – all of whom are encouraged to use and enjoy the river when conditions are suitable and with the proper safety precautions, including the use of a life-jacket.
Results were posted weekly during the summer months to the Swim Guide beach pages for Fort Edmonton Footbridge Sandbar and Cloverdale Beach as well as the Laurier Park and Capilano Park boat launches (you can also follow us on facebook and twitter). The green and red Swim Guide symbols reflect the water quality at the time of sampling and can be interpreted as follows:
Water quality guidelines vary among jurisdictions. Beaches included in the North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper monitoring program are tested for E. coli in accordance with Health Canada’s recreational water quality guidelines and are compared against a standard of 200 CFU/100ml (colony forming units of E. coli per 100 ml of water). Five samples are taken at each beach and used to determine the average (geometric mean) level of E. coli at the time of sampling. If the result is less than or equal to 200 CFU/100ml, the beach is considered to have met water quality standards, which aim to limit waterborne illnesses to 1-2%, or 10-20 people for every 1,000 swimmers. Levels above 200 CFU/100ml fail to meet the standard and the risk of contracting a waterborne illness increases.
If the result is less than or equal to 200 CFU/100ml, the beach is considered to have met water quality standards, which aim to limit waterborne illnesses to 1-2%, or 10-20 people for every 1,000 swimmers. Levels above 200 fail to meet the standards and the risk of contracting a waterborne illness increases.
These results provide reference points for a wide range of river recreation activities and our test results are equally intended for boaters, anglers, rowers, and others who might not be swimming, but come in contact with the water all the same.
Note that while this data serves as a helpful reference point, it does not provide a comprehensive assessment of all of the risk factors that affect swimming safety. Furthermore, because water quality changes quickly in a river environment, test results only reflect water quality at the time of sampling. To determine the level of risk associated with swimming in the North Saskatchewan River on a given day, recreational users should consider a wide range of risk factors before entering the water.
Rules of thumb: When is the water quality best?
In moving water, the quality can change very quickly and while our test results serve as a helpful reference point, additional judgement is essential.
Delay swimming for 48 hours following a moderate or heavy rainfall.
Much like spring runoff, rainfall causes higher discharges of storm-water, which can lead to poorer water quality and can elevate the risk of contracting an illness and infection through recreational water activities. At certain places downstream of the Rossdale water treatment plant, heavy rainfalls can also lead to discharges of raw sewage directly into the river.
Choose a swimming location away from any stormwater or combined sewer outfalls.
Water quality can also be poorer near the mouths of tributary creeks due to stormwater discharges into these smaller waterways – if swimming near a creek mouth, it is usually best to enter the river on the upstream side of the creek.
Swim when river flow levels are moderate.
High flow levels sometimes lead to poorer water quality and more floating debris (such as large logs), while extremely low levels can make it difficult to swim in shallower parts of the river.
Choose an upstream location for your swimming activities.
Generally, the further upstream you go, the cleaner the water will be. Our test results will help determine the particular levels of risk posed by water quality at upstream and downstream locations within the City of Edmonton and will help us advocate for water management strategies that ensure the river is just as clean when it leaves the city as when it enters.
With the right precautions, swimming in the North Saskatchewan River can make for a safe and enjoyable recreation experience!
The water quality considerations listed here are not exhaustive and recreational water users should ensure suitable conditions and take all safety precautions before entering the water. Click below to learn more about how to mitigate the physical risks inherent in swimming activities.
In addition to the risks associated with water quality, there are a number of physical risks inherent to swimming in moving water. Some of these risks can be mitigated by wearing a life jacket with a whistle and swimming with a partner. Level of swimming ability also significantly affects the severity of some risks. Be sure to inform a friend of your swimming or water recreation plans and at what time you will return.
Be aware of floating debris such as large logs and avoid swimming when river levels are higher. At these times the water quality may be poorer, there is often more floating debris, and the current is generally stronger.
While higher flow levels can elevate the risks of swimming, lower levels can also present risks due to protruding rocks and insufficient water for swimming.
Avoid standing on the river bottom in deeper moving water where there is a risk of foot entrapment (this is where a swimmer's foot is caught beneath a rock or in a crevice on the river bottom and is pushed underwater by the current).
Be aware of power boats moving at high speeds.
Note that the considerations listed here may not address all safety risks and given the inherent nature of recreational water activities, North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper cannot assume liability for any injuries or damages suffered as a result of these activities.
North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper is a strong advocate for water recreation under suitable conditions and with the proper safety precautions. We are equally an advocate for improving water quality and reducing negative environmental impacts. Our water monitoring program connects these mandates and, together with Swim Drink Fish Canada, we are working toward a day when all people in Canada can swim, drink, and fish in the waterbodies where they live.
What are we testing for?
Within city limits, one of the greatest water quality concerns is the discharge of untreated sewage and stormwater directly into the river and its tributaries. With this in mind, our testing targets E. coli as a bacteria indicator of fecal contamination. If E. coli is present, many other contaminants are in the water too and in cases where a beach fails to meet federal guidelines, the risk of illness or infection increases above 1-2%, or 10-20 illnesses for every 1,000 swimmers. Note that guidelines in some jurisdictions are much more stringent and are designed to protect more vulnerable demographics including children, who often swallow more water and play in the shallower, more contaminated areas of a beach. Click below to read about our testing methods in detail.
At each beach in the monitoring program, North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper collects five 100ml samples for processing at a private environmental lab, Exova Group. Depending on flow levels, samples are collected at a depth of approximately 30 cm in at least 60 cm of water using standard methods including the use of sanitized bottles and preservatives. Exova Group uses a standard membrane filtration method to process the samples and determine the number of colony forming units of E. coli per 100 ml of water (CFU/100ml) in each sample.
Five samples from each beach are used to calculate the average (geometric mean) level of E. coli and a beach is posted red if the result exceeds 200 CFU per 100 ml of water. If the result is less than or equal to 200 CFU/100ml, the beach is posted green.
Any questions regarding our monitoring protocols can be directed to Hans Asfeldt (reach him directly via the contact page).
Why is this information important? Water pollution can have adverse effects on aquatic life and human health. Swimming in contaminated water can lead to a variety of illnesses showing symptoms from vomiting and diarrhea to skin, ear, and eye infections. More serious afflictions are also cause for concern due to parasites, bacteria, and viruses that can be introduced by sewage discharges. Read more.
Promoting an active community of river enthusiasts!
This program is part of a broader effort to promote a vibrant community of watershed stewards who can enjoy recreation activities on rivers and lakes now and into the future. We are out sampling every Tuesday morning and already it is great to see so many Edmontonians enjoying the river! See you next week?