Call for clean swimming water in Vancouver's False Creek falls flat

The Vancouver Sun, Susan Lazaruk - July 17, 2018

Pollution levels at the east end of False Creek are almost quadruple safe levels, a year after Vancouver city council passed a motion to make the waterway swimmable by this summer.

The concentration of animal or human fecal contamination registered at 776 in False Creek East early this month, about four times the level of 200 E. coli per 100 ml of water considered safe for swimming, according to latest Vancouver Coastal Health test numbers.

The pollution hit a high of 926 at the end of May and has hit weekly highs of over 500, from 541 to 855, during six other weeks this spring/summer season already.

In 2017, the E. coli levels topped 500 only three weeks in total.

Neither the city or health authority could explain why the pollution levels were higher this year over last year.

“The reason for contamination can vary widely,” said health authority spokesman Matt Kieltyka in an email. “Rain is often a factor contributing to beach water pollution,” because heavy rain overwhelms sewers and forces water into waterways.

“The lack of tidal flush in certain areas, increased human and animal activity and hot weather, which can speed up bacterial growth, are also possible causes,” he said.

False Creek is home to several marinas and moored visiting boats, that sometimes pump raw sewage into the creek.

A concentration higher than 200 bacteria per 100 ml of water creates an increased risk of gastrointestinal and upper respiratory diseases in swimmers and bathers, according to Vancouver Coastal Health.

All other Metro Vancouver beaches regularly test within the allowable limits but Trout Lake, which last week tested at 141, has registered a 175 concentration in recent years.

Last June, Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer introduced a motion to implement “measures to make high-use waterways in Trout Lake and False Creek safely accessible by swimmers in advance of summer 2018.”

Reimer didn’t respond to requests for comment about the status of that goal. But in an email reply, she referred questions to a year-old city report calling for a $200,000 “hydraulic model” of the False Creek basin and “water quality performance model” to determine what’s causing the pollution.

She said staff was continuing to explore the possibility of a floating swimming pool in False Creek and a swimming beach at North East False Creek park.

These options in the report were identified as “a series of quick starts to improve water quality and make high-use waterways in Trout Lake and False Creek safely accessible by swimmers.”

Reimer said in the email the hydraulic testing was underway and a report was “imminent”, but she didn’t provide a date for its completion.

Earlier this year, city council passed a bylaw requiring marinas to provide pump-out facilities, as of next Jan. 1, Amanda McCuaig, the city engineering spokeswoman, said in an email.

It also announced earlier this year it would continue a free public mobile pump-out boat and free pump-out services at public marinas piloted last year.

The city plans to step up enforcement by allowing bylaw officers to issue tickets for lack of signage at marinas banning discharge of illegal wastes or failing to provide a pump-out facility and giving them greater inspection rights.

Boats flushing waste into the creek “has been a problem since the 1990s and it hasn’t gone away,” said Celia Brauer of the False Creek Watershed Society. “We’re a modern society, we’re a clever society, why can’t we come up with a way to ensure people aren’t pumping out into the water?”

She said if the honour system isn’t working, it’s up to authorities to step up compliance, starting with “If you enter Vancouver harbour, you have to have a holding tank.”

”How do you police that? I don’t know,” she said, adding there is no way to tell if boats are flushing their waste.

Vancouver Coastal Health, which lists weekly E. coli numbers for Metro Vancouver beaches on its website, includes False Creek even though it’s not a “primary contact” swimming beach because it’s mostly used for canoeing, rowing, kayaking and other water sports.

The health authority said the consequences of contact with the contaminated water isn’t known, but ingesting it should be avoided and it recommended washing or showering with soap after coming in contact with the water.

Fraser Riverkeeper, a non-profit advocate for a “swimmable, drinkable, fishable” Vancouver, is recommending politicians mandate “real-time reporting of combined sewer discharges into Burrard Inlet.”

It recommends year-round water quality monitoring, not just during May to September, sediment sampling and an official non-discharge zone.

Top five cleanest beaches, as of July 5, 2018 (E. coli per 100 ml of water)

1. Sandy Cove (W. Van) (13)
2. Whytecliffe Park (W. Van) (14)
3. Wreck Beach (Trail 6, Breakwater) (15)
4. (Tie) Third Beach and Iona Beach (Rmd) (16)
5. Spanish Banks (17)

Top five dirtiest beaches, as of July 5 (E. coli per 100 ml of water)

1. False Creek East (776)
2. False Creek Central (163)
3. Trout Lake (141)
4. Crab Park (115)
5. Sunset Beach (73)

Susan Lazaruk: [email protected]

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