There’s nothing quite like taking a dip on a hot summer day in the cold water of a natural body of water. But unless it’s a chlorinated pool, I always think about whether the water I swim in will make me sick or give me swimmers itch. In this blog I discuss how the prairie waterbodies are tested for recreational use, and how to access this information to be sure you remain healthy and happy when enjoying the natural lakes and rivers we have. Here are the most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on water quality.
How do I know is the water is okay to swim in?
- If you’re planning on visiting a specific waterbody, head to the Swim Guide app or website to see the latest recreational water quality testing results. 32,000 Canadians have used Swim Guide across the prairies *since* Canada Day!!
What if my lake, or waterbody is not on Swim Guide and/or I notice incorrect information on Swim Guide?
- Please do not hesitate to check out our contact information here, and let us know which waterbodies we should add, or what information we should update!
How do I understand the symbols on Swim Guide?
- The Swim Guide team has a streamlined system of symbols so that you can quickly understand what is going on with the water. Check out the symbol descriptions below.
What is being tested in recreational water quality tests?
- The main risk in Canadian recreational waterbodies used for primary or secondary recreational activities is contact with pathogens. Primary recreation activities include swimming and wading in the water and secondary activities include on-the-water activities like sailing and paddling, where the chance of water getting in your mouth is low. Pathogens are bacteria, viruses, or microorganisms that can cause disease.
- The federal government recommends testing for E. coli, Enterococci., pathogenic microorganisms, cyanobacteria, other biological hazards, pH, temperature, and chemical hazards. There are also testing recommendations for the water’s turbidity, clarity, colour, oil and grease and litter.
- E. coli and Enterococci levels are used as indicators of fecal matter, as they are fecal coliforms found in the intestines of animals and humans. Their presence in the water could indicate disease-causing bacteria, viruses and protozoans. Fecal matter in the water could be the result of improperly functioning wastewater treatment plants, leaking septic systems, or runoff from manure, among others.
- When there is evidence of blue-green algae, it is recommended that microcystins be tested in the water. Microcystins are a natural toxin that occurs when there is a large bloom. Upon entering the body, they travel to the liver and cause serious damage to humans and animals.
A Lake with a Cyanobacteria Bloom in July 2018 (Image Credit: Alberta Health Services)
- If deemed necessary by the provincial or local governing body, other microorganisms or biological hazards may be tested for as well.
Is there Federal legislation for testing recreational waters?
- No, the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality is a federal document which outlines recommendations based on research for provincial and local policymakers to consider when managing their water bodies. As stated above, this document recommends testing for E. coli, Enterococci., pathogenic microorganisms, cyanobacteria, other biological hazards, pH, temperature, and chemical hazards. The provinces set their water quality testing parameters based on these recommendations.
- They suggest testing for E. coli and for blue-green algae with the following criteria. When a water sample exceeds these parameters, they fail to meet the water quality standard.
- No single sample result is greater than 400 E. coli organisms in 100 milliliters (mLs) of water for primary contact recreation.
- The geometric mean of five samples is ≤ 200 E. coli/100 mLs for primary contact recreation.
- Cyanobacteria or their toxins is less than 20 µg/L.
- This document also suggests a multi-barrier approach to recreational water safety. This means there would ideally be an integrated system of procedures, actions and tools in place, that collectively reduce the risk of human exposure to water quality hazards. They suggest having multiple barriers in place to prevent water quality degradation (source protection, monitoring on multiple levels, hazard control, communication, consultation when necessary), rather than one single barrier.
What does Alberta test for and how can I access the results?
- Alberta Health Services (AHS) have a monitoring program called the Alberta Safe Beach Protocol for freshwater beaches across the province. Water samples are taken by AHS staff and processed by Alberta Public Laboratories. The sampling frequency and beaches tested can vary per season, and the numeric results are currently not available to the public.
- The AHS program tests for Enterococcus as of 2019, prior to this year they tested fecal coliforms. Recent studies have shown Enterococcus to be a better indicator organism for fecal contamination than total fecal coliform tests. When a potential blue-green algal bloom is spotted, blue-green algae/cyanobacteria and microcystins are also tested. AHS uses the following parameters for water quality thresholds before issuing a public health advisory.
- AHS follows the same parameters for recreational water quality as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- Any public health advisories that are issued for fecal contamination, blue-green algae blooms, or other water quality concerns will be listed on the AHS Public Health Advisories website, which can be found here. They are also updated daily on the Swim Guide app and website.
What does Saskatchewan test for and how can I access the results?
- The Saskatchewan Ministry of Health has launched the Healthy Beaches Program, which provides water quality testing results to the public for 67 waterbodies across the province. This program monitors the health of beaches on a regular basis (which can be weekly, monthly, annually, etc. depending on the beach), and monitors water quality to inform citizens on potential risks. The beaches chosen for testing are based off recreational use statistics and other parameters. Private beaches are not included in this program.
- The Healthy Beaches program releases results for E. coli and for blue-green algae. They currently use the following federal recommendations for determining the quality of recreational water. When a water sample exceeds the parameters stated below, it fails the water quality standard.
- No single sample result is greater than 400 E. coli organisms in 100 milliliters (mLs) of water
- The geometric mean of five samples is ≤ 200 E. coli/100 mLs
- Cyanobacteria or their toxins is less than 20 µg/L.
- Advisories will be issued to the public if beaches exceed the recommended levels of E. coli or blue-green algae. Nicole White, the Ministry of Health Zoonotic/Environmental Health Consultant for the Healthy Beaches program shares that citizens should follow the instructions on signage at the beach. The local signage at a beach might state to not ingest the water, or to keep yourself and your pets away from a blue-green algae bloom.
What does Manitoba test for and how can I access the results?
- The Government of Manitoba also has a Clean Beaches Program. This program monitors the beaches, takes samples, and provides open data on water quality testing to the public. Sixty beaches are tested for water quality. The beaches are selected based on previous recreational use statistics and historical health of the waterbody.
- The program tests for E. coli levels, as well as blue-green algae and microcystins when a bloom is spotted. Their water quality criteria aligns with the federal recommendations. When a water sample exceeds the parameters listed below it has failed the standard.
- No sample result of E. coli with the geometric mean exceeding 200 bacteria/100 mL
- No single sample result of E. coli contains more than 400 bacteria/100 mL
- No sample of blue-green algae/cyanobacteria should exceed 100,000 cells/mL.
- When a sample is taken and exceeds these parameters, it is re-sampled as soon as possible until it meets recreational water standards.
- The health advisories for fecal contamination, blue-green algae blooms, or other water quality hazards will be updated here on a regular basis.
How can I report pollution if I see it in the water?
- Please report water pollution you see through the Swim Guide app and website. From your report our team will ensure that the pollution will be addressed by the correct parties. If you’re unsure what kind of pollution you may see, check out one of our past blogs on what water pollution can look like.
What is swimmer’s itch?!
- Swimmer’s itch, also known as lake itch or duck rash, is an allergic reaction as a result of your skin coming into contact with parasites in a body of water. It is caused by a parasitic flatworm that grows in snails, not by blue-green algae, which is a common misconception. These flatworms, known as schistosomes, are present in many lakes across the prairies.
- The rash itself can look like mosquito bites, pimples, or blisters and is not contagious between people. Children are especially susceptible because they may play in shallow waters. To help prevent getting swimmer’s itch towel-off immediately after leaving the water and avoid swimming in high vegetation areas of lakes. In high vegetation areas or shallow waters there may be more snails present, and potentially more parasitic flatworms (as they use snails as their host).
- Check out a new swimmers Itch reporting tool to report your ‘itch’, see how you can treat it, and see where others have experienced the ‘itch’ this summer.
How do I know if the water is safe to swim, drink or fish in?
- For swimming guidelines check our Swim Guide app and website to see the most updated recreational water testing results across Canada.
- For drinking water consult your provincial governing body to see what water quality processing they use, and to learn about where your tap water comes from. They can be found here: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba.
- For fishing information consult your provincial guidelines on angling practices and eating fish. They can be found here: Alberta guidelines, Saskatchewan guidelines and Manitoba guidelines.
Have other questions we didn’t answer? Feel free to reach out to the North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper through our website, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook! Have a great time swimming, and enjoying the water this summer.
Image: SplitShire via Pixabay