The Complicated Story Behind "Water Safety" in False Creek

Every summer, Vancouverites contact us to find out if it is safe to swim in False Creek. False Creek is an incredible waterbody that passes through the heart of the city and a hub for water recreation. It's the meeting point for dragon boat teams and likely houses the dock where you slide into a kayak for the first time. It's no wonder citizens seek more information about the safety of the water quality here, we're always out on the water.

There are a variety of factors that come into play when considering overall “safety” of a water body, and water quality is just one element to be considered.  

Recreational water quality standards specifically pertain to sewage pollution and do not account for other pollutants such as those from industry or stormwater.  Water may contain metal or oil pollution but no E. coli. Water can be bacteria-free, but still dirty. Water quality, like the weather, is constantly changing. For these reasons, we can never say a waterbody is “safe” with certainty.

However, based on information made available by Vancouver Coastal Health and based on our own sampling data, we can say with confidence whether the water quality has “met criteria” or “failed to meet criteria” (“pass” or “fail” in Swim Guide parlance) after a specific testing day. In British Columbia, water quality is measured using the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality.

Swim Guide informs the public as to whether a water body passes the standards for primary contact recreation water activities. It would pass the test if the E-coli counts at a particular location are under 200 E-coli/100mL.

Primary contact recreations include activities such as swimming and surfing and are defined as any water activity where your entire body is submerged. Though it is worth noting that while your exposure to pollutants is reduced during secondary contact recreation activities, such as canoeing, kayaking, boating, sailing rowing and wading,  the risk to your health is still present.

Furthermore, other physical hazards may exist at the beach. Tides, drop offs, water vessels, and sharp objects also pose a potential threat to safety. Just because water is “clean”, it doesn’t mean it is also “safe”.

So how do I decide if I want to get into the water?

While certain parts of False Creek may pass recreational water standards at the time of sampling, water quality, like the weather,  can change within a day or even within an hour. The best practice for making an informed decision is to gather as much information as you can about beaches that interest you.

  1. Look up recent weather: Periods of heavy rainfall can greatly affect the water quality. Combined sewer outflows tend to occur during these rain events and cause sewage to enter our waterbodies before receiving treatment. This introduces harmful bacteria and toxins into the water. For this reason, we recommend following the 48-hour rule and avoiding contact with the water for 48 hours after it rains. This simple rule helps reduce exposure to bacteria and waterborne illnesses.
  2. Check your surroundings: Take a look around and see if there is anything concerning that can affect your safety. Note the number of boats in the surrounding area. Is there any concerning garbage or marine debris? Do you see any harmful pollution or irregular behaviour? Make a note on Swim Guide using our “Report Pollution” feature or contact the appropriate authorities.
  3. Water depth: Depending on your swimming ability, the depth of the water is important for you safety. If a certain area is too deep, make use of a life jacket and always swim with a buddy!
  4. Know the waterbody: Using open waters for recreational activities such as swimming is very different than using a swimming pool or calm lake. There may be drop-offs, sandbars, undertows and underwater rocks/obstacles that you may not have predicted.  
  5. Consider the water quality: High levels of bacteria have the potential to cause illness to individuals. Metro Vancouver and Fraser Riverkeeper test water quality using E.coli as an indicator to determine whether the water has passed Canadian recreational water quality standards. These are shared on Fraser Riverkeeper’s website and on the website of Vancouver Coastal Health every Friday.  Check the latest publicly available water quality results on our app, Swim Guide. This includes Metro Vancouver’s sampling results as well as our sampling results from our False Creek Water Monitoring Program.

There you have it! The complicated story behind water safety and what Fraser Riverkeeper and Swim Drink Fish are doing to keep you informed. If you have any further questions, please contact us at [email protected] or check out this detailed Swim Guide article about water safety.

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