Fraser Riverkeeper's Recommendations for a Swimmable Vancouver

By FRK Staff 

Vancouver is buzzing with excitement at the prospect of making False Creek, the heart of downtown, swimmable. This possibility is not only desirable, it’s doable. We can build on the momentum of other major cities that have successfully made once-polluted urban waterways swimmable. Most notably, and remarkably, Paris has opened its once-polluted Canal to swimmers this summer. Chicago, Washington and Boston are all actively working to make formerly garbage-laden and polluted urban waterways safe and clean for public swimming. While the Clean Water Act in the US has been the catalyst for clean-ups in most American cities, we all share this truth: our cities and citizens are passionate about having clean, living rivers flowing through their downtowns.

This morning Vancouver City Council decides on key actions to be undertaken to improve water quality in False Creek. Council’s ultimate goals are to make False Creek swimmable and to restore shellfish harvesting once again.

Fraser Riverkeeper wholeheartedly supports the motion to make False Creek swimmable. As representatives of recreational water users in Vancouver and beyond— many of which love paddling in False Creek— we share the collective vision of a vibrant and resilient waterfront, where people can swim safely in the heart of our city.  

Of specific interest in the City’s Administrative Report are two recommendations: the allocation of $200,000 towards research on False Creek hydrology and a feasibility study for a floating swimming pool in False Creek (sourcing the water from our drinking watersheds). 

So what will it take to make False Creek Swimmable?  

First, we need to acknowledge that False Creek is currently designated as a secondary contact recreation water body, meaning it is not currently protected for swimming.  Primary contact recreation activities, like swimming and surfing, are defined as any water activity where your entire body is submerged. Secondary contact recreational water activities are defined as activities where only your limbs (arms and legs) are in contact with the water, such as when engaging in activities like canoeing, kayaking, boating, sailing, rowing, and wading. 

We have outlined a set of recommendations, starting with the recommendation that the city should set a mandate and create a plan for reviving False Creek, with the intention to upgrades its official designation from a secondary contact recreation water body to a primary contact waterbody: one that is actually protected for swimming.

Recommendation # 1: Launch a comprehensive monitoring plan to assess baseline conditions for sediment, water quality in False Creek

The city needs to conduct an official assessment of historical sediment contamination and current water quality. We need to know what we don’t know. This baseline data will provide the necessary context on the concentration of toxins deposited by industrial operations in False Creek up until 1970, and help map and understand current point and non-point sources of water pollution. From these reference points, we can determine the most effective ecological restoration strategies. 

A.     Sediment Sampling

Through sediment core sampling, we can determine the concentration of chemicals and toxins contained in the substrate. Industrial operations discharged toxics directly into False Creek until about 1970, including high concentrations of cadmium, mercury, and lead. These remain in the sediments today. In 2010, prior to the arrival of Olympic athletes, Fraser Riverkeeper took sediment samples and found elevated levels of PCBs, PAHs and heavy metals in the southeast portion of False Creek.

Highly toxic sediment threatens aquatic species and are harmful to human health, should the sediment be disturbed. Sediment samples need to be taken at multiple of points along the creek to have a clear understanding of where heavy metals, PCBs, PAHs and other toxins are concentrated beneath the surface. 

After a comprehensive sediment sampling process throughout False Creek has been conducted to assess concentration and location of toxins, there are two options that should be considered: remove the sediment and deposit elsewhere. That means dredging, and potentially disturbing and distributing the toxins in the bottom. The other option is  capping, which entails placing a hard material over a particularly polluted spot by using chemicals that will break down the toxins over time. 

Once we know what is in the sediment and where, an assessment can be conducted to decide the best and safest path forward. 

B.     Year-Round Water Quality Monitoring

We recommend water quality monitoring be conducted year-round, rather than just May-September. This will provide a complete understanding of the major contributing factors to poor water quality in False Creek. This waterbody is used year-round by recreationalists and water users need to know the e. coli levels of the waters they play and exercise in. 

As Metro Vancouver works toward BC's goal to eliminate sewage overflows by 2050, the city is undergoing separation of its antiquated combined sewer outfall system. Two CSOs at False Creek remain partially unseparated.

In 2016 3,652,000 m3 of untreated waste water flowed into False Creek over 495 hours from the Heather Street CSO. 

Additionally there are up to 20 storm water drains that overflow into False Creek, carrying oil/gas, litter, heavy metals, sewage, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and other deleterious substance into receiving waters, reducing dissolved oxygen levels and leading to unsafe recreational waters.

It is imperative we determine whether combined sewer overflows, dumping of sewage from boaters in False Creek, runoff or other land-based sources are the greatest contributors to False Creek’s water quality problem. 

Long-term monitoring of water quality should be considered a metric of success – there is no point in allocating resources towards restoring False Creek if we do not have a complete understanding of where we have been, where we are now and where we will end up.


Recommendation #2: Conduct Comprehensive Hydrological Modelling studies

We support the City’s proposed allocation of funds to conduct a comprehensive Hydrology study. Hydrology is currently not modeled or well-understood in False Creek. We know tidal forces are not strong enough to flush out the east end of False Creek. The result is that water gets stagnant and E. coli levels spike. Better studies are needed to understand flow dynamics, tidal flushing, existing circulation and water quality performance— and to explore opportunities to increase flushing by connecting to existing water sources. 

These studies will help us identify how to best restore flow back in to False Creek, and whether the water canal that historically ran along Carrall Street can be redirected back to the Creek after demolition of the Georgia Viaduct.

Recommendation #3: Continue and Make Permanent Boat Pump Out Initiatives

Vessels are a significant concern in terms of water pollution. Boats discharging sewage in False Creek is illegal under the Canada Shipping Act, but there is no permanent pump out service there. We applaud the City for instituting free pump out days, and the floating pump outs are another step towards eliminating illegally dumped sewage from vessels. We recommend these pump out stations become permanent fixtures in False Creek.

Recommendation #4: Establish an official Non-Discharge Zone

The idea for a Non-Discharge Zone was borne out of discussions with the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation (VBPR) about ways in which FRK could help to support an effort to improve recreational water quality in Vancouver's waterways; most specifically, in False Creek. VBPR commissioners had previously investigated the possibility of submitting a Non-Discharge Zone application to Transport Canada, but had been unable to make any headway with the agency to date.

Preparing the Non-Discharge Zone application will be a year-long process, requiring engagement with a huge range of a community partners, including Federal and Provincial regulators, four First Nations, as many as ten local government bodies, and countless recreational water user groups and businesses. We are already planning to utilize our existing partnerships with the Jericho Sailing Centre and the Big Chop

summer paddle series to help facilitate our community consultation efforts. VBPR has also agreed to support community consultations through the provision of space for hosting townhall-style meetings and conducting tabling sessions.


Recommendation #5: Green infrastructure and Ecological Restoration

We recommend the creation of a comprehensive and integrated plan for the remaining green space to reduce contaminant load. The plan should include storm water management to reduce the volume of storm water discharging into False Creek to keep pollution from running off our roadways. 

Some examples include consideration of more green parks and bio-swales to filter capture and filter run-off. A community rain garden project would capture water flow. Biological control methods, such as utilizing bivalves as water filters may also prove effective.

We encourage working closely with First Nations and incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into restoration efforts. 

Recommendation #6: Ditch the Feasibility Plan for a Floating Swimming Pool in False Creek

Fraser Riverkeeper recommends that the City of Vancouver does not allocate $200,000 towards a feasibility plan for a potable water floating swimming pool in False Creek. We understand the premise of introducing Vancouverites to the concept of swimming in False Creek, but our resources and time should be dedicated to making the waters of False Creek swimmable, not pumping in drinking water from our reservoirs.

The concept of installing a swimming pool is a distraction. The spirit and force behind the term “swimmable” applies to the actual waterbody itself. Swimmable does not mean installing a swimming pool into a polluted water body and inviting the public in for a dip. It would be a waste of precious water resources, particularly in the context of a rapidly changing climate, to pipe in drinking water from our reservoirs. Funds should be focused on ecological restoration efforts, such as the continuance of daylighting creeks, and long-term water quality monitoring. 

We are moving in the right direction! 

While False Creek is not currently designated a bathing beach, the water quality for 2017 has actually been meeting standards for primary contact more often than not. These positive results should encourage Vancouverites that we can and should be able to swim in the water in downtown Vancouver.  We are proud to be working towards becoming the Greenest City in the very near future— and becoming a Blue City is just as important.


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