By Emmalee Biebl & Julia Pepler

As summer draws towards an end, many of us at Swim Drink Fish have been reflecting on the mild weather Vancouver has experienced over the last few months. Previous summers of extreme heat and little precipitation caused many forest fires, visible in the city by a constant haze of smoke. Even with the milder weather this year, beach closures in Vancouver are still too frequent. 

Kitsilano Beach, Sunset Beach, Vanier Park, and Trout Lake have all experienced closures due to high levels of bacterial contamination, which sadly at times has stopped many Vancouverites from enjoying some of our beaches this summer. The unfortunate reality is that frequent closures at a beach can push people away from that water body by reinforcing negative perceptions about the cleanliness of our water. Because of these beach closures, even frequent water recreation groups can develop a mistrust of the waters they interact with on an almost daily basis.

In late July, we were joined by almost 20 members of the Vancouver Open Water Swim Association (VOWSA) for an evening of water literacy and water sampling. Although these folks are true water experts in many areas, a majority of them got to try their hands at water monitoring for the first time! VOWSA members expressed a lot of concern about the number of beach closures this year. As avid open water swimmers, these athletes spend a whole lot of time in the water and when beach closures are in place, VOWSA members often have to refrain from their standard training programs, otherwise, they could be putting their health at risk, which has understandably given them great cause for concern.

VOWSA members read water data measurements on a YSI meter.

From the VOWSA group we spoke with Rachel Schoeler, a Fraser Riverkeeper alumnus. Rachel is a marathon swimmer who has connected her love of water to her passion for our environment. In 2014, Rachel swam 35km across the Georgia Strait to raise money for Fraser Riverkeeper and spark a conversation about safeguarding a clean and swimmable future for British Columbians. Rachel’s own Watermark reflects on the water contamination issues that we experience here in Vancouver, saying,

"In the summer of 2014, I was training to do one of the first major long-distance swims of my life. I was preparing to swim across the Georgia Strait. This meant that hours and hours and hours of my time was spent training in my local water bodies, mostly Jericho and Kits Beach. However, mid-summer both Kits Beach and Jericho experienced beach closures due to poor water quality and my coach at the time actually encouraged me to swim in the pool (crazy because I was also training for colder temperatures!) to avoid getting sick before the big swim. This was a very challenging time for me. Swimming in the ocean is where I feel most relaxed, most at ease, but now there was a fear that it would make me sick. Since then I have been doing everything I can to spread the work among the open water swimming community and make sure that folks stand up for their natural right to swimmable water. There are still regularly closures each summer, which is incredibly frustrating, but it also continues to push me to learn more and do what I can to protect my waterbody."

Rachel Schoeler (center) collects a water sample with Vancouver Water Monitoring Coordinator, Katie Moore (left).

The president of VOWSA, Andrea McCallum, spoke to us about how beach closures due to water contamination have been a source of disappointment and shame for her while organizing international open water swimming events, saying, “English Bay is the location of the VOWSA Bay Challenge swim event. In August 2018, this race had to be cancelled as Kitsilano Beach was closed due to a water quality advisory." She explained how she had to face the issue, "The swimmers, coming from across the Lower Mainland, Ontario and France, were very gracious in their disappointment, but disappointed they were. Having to explain what caused the race to be cancelled made me disappointed and embarrassed as well." As someone who works with the international swimming community, Andrea is often asked, "How could a 'world class city' have such polluted local water?" Though there is no one answer for this, Andrea still remains hopeful about Vancouver's water quality, "I love English Bay and the swimming adventures is provides. I look forward to when our local waters are no longer threatened, and impacted by pollution of any kind.”

It is stories like these that remind us of the reality that poor water quality can fracture our relationship with our local water bodies. Connecting with the members of VOWSA, hearing how important water quality is for their health and dedication to open water swimming, helped confirm our motivations to test water quality frequently in Vancouver. Before leaving, we ensured that all the members were familiar with the Swim Guide website and app so that they can check the latest water quality information before heading out for a swim. We know that by connecting to water, the VOWSA members feel empowered to protect it. It was a pleasure to show them the work we are doing with the Vancouver Water Monitoring Program, and extend our citizen science program to such a passionate group of swimmers.

If you are inspired to take action to protect the waters you love, join the movement of citizen scientists who volunteer to monitor Vancouver’s waters on a weekly basis, you can learn about how to get involved here.

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