Vancouver: Warmer temperatures may mean more beach closures

The Vancouver Sun, Denise Ryan - August 14, 2018

Climate change may be to blame for beach closures in Metro Vancouver.

A woman reads a book Tuesday at Sunset Beach in Vancouver. No-swimming advisories were lifted Tuesday afternoon at Sunset and nearby English Bay Beach but a similar warning remains in effect for Jericho Beach. 

Climate change may be the culprit behind the proliferation of E. coli in English Bay that prompted this week’s no-swim advisory for three popular Vancouver beaches, says Deborah Harford, executive director of the Adaptation to Climate Change team at Simon Fraser University.

“Bacteria thrive in warmer temperatures,” said Harford. “This year in particular, temperature records have toppled around the world. We are seeing records being set.”

Harford said the combination of warmer, longer, hotter drier summers, and warmer wetter winters, have long been projected to have health impacts, which include water quality issues, and proliferation of bacteria.

“We’ve been saying for 10 years that climate change is going to affect you, but when it turns into you can’t go swimming, people start to notice,” said Harford.

Lauren Brown Hornor, of Fraser Riverkeeper, an organization that advocates for the protection and restoration of B.C. waterways, says the situation is complex, and her organization is “pushing for full transparency from Metro Vancouver” about the fluctuations in numbers and the source of the bacteria.

Vancouver Coastal Health announced Tuesday that English Bay Beach and Sunset Beach advisories had been lifted after three days. The advisory remains for Jericho Beach.

Hornor hopes that Vancouver will move more quickly to improve its drainage system.

Although storm run-off may not have been a factor in the recent hot-weather E. coli blooms, Vancouver has an “antiquated” system, says Hornor, in which sewage and stormwater run-off flow into the same pipe to waste water treatment plants.

The City of Vancouver has a plan to separate all combined sewer and drainage pipes by 2050, but heavy rainfall can trigger outflows of untreated sewage into its waterways.

“If the plant gets overwhelmed, they can’t treat it all before they discharge it through the combined sewer outfalls,” said Hornor.

Hornor said the city needs to install sensors that monitor just how often, and how much run-off is being discharged through the CSOs.

“We need to know whether we can rule them out as a culprit,” said Hornor. “If we were able to rule out CSOs, we could figure out what the source of the bacteria is.”

Animals such as geese and dogs, and increased pleasure boating may be contributing factors, said Hornor.

Rob Macarthur, superintendent of waste water processing for Metro Vancouver, said CSOs trigger an alert to officials when there is storm sewage overflow. But he said he is confident “there is no connection” between water treatment plant outflows and the current E. coli bloom.

Macarthur said all waste water is disinfected before discharge from its Metro Vancouver treatment plants, and staff try to keep E. coli to non-detectable levels before discharge.

“The numbers we see within the plant, we keep that constant and quite low because we don’t want to discharge anything that would contaminate the beaches,” said Macarthur.

“Metro Vancouver also has plans in process to upgrade its treatment plants so they will be able to handle a larger capacity of water.”

Macarthur said he has no doubt the E. coli blooms are climate-related.

“When you get higher temperatures, bacteria multiplies more rapidly, like food that’s left out spoils on the counter,” he said.

Hornor recommends water lovers download the SwimGuide app, which provides up-to-date information on freshwater and marine swimming sites across Canada.

“We indicate whether a beach has passed or failed a swim quality test,” said Hornor. “Water quality is like the weather; it does change day by day, hour by hour.”

Denise Ryan: [email protected]

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