By Julia Pepler

Months after hot summer days at the beach have come to an end, Vancouver Water Monitoring Coordinator, Katie Moore, and our team of volunteers continue to head out on Thursday mornings to monitor the recreational water quality in Vancouver’s False Creek. But why do we sample year-round, through the coldest months of the year? 

There are a few different reasons we monitor through the winter months, but to understand these we need to look at why we monitor recreational water quality in the first place. At Swim Drink Fish, we believe that all citizens should have the right to safely swim, drink, and fish in their local waters. If the water is not suitable to do so, citizens should be able to access reliable water quality information, report pollution, and advocate to improve the conditions of their local waters. Change takes time, it takes a movement of people raising their voices, and it takes dedication to understand the issues threatening a water body. Our initiatives work to ensure that all citizens feel empowered to join the Swim Drink Fish movement and connect to their local waters. 

We take advantage of Vancouver’s unique weather

Unlike the water bodies of other Swim Drink Fish initiatives across Canada, such as North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper in Edmonton and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper in Toronto, False Creek does not freeze solid during the winter months. This means that many active Vancouverites brave the wet weather and use False Creek for paddling and boating even in sub-zero temperatures. We want to ensure that people who use False Creek’s waters have access to water quality information no-matter the time of year. 

By sampling throughout the year, we can also track how E. coli is affected by weather patterns such as heavy rainfall, extreme temperatures, and dry spells. This data aids in a deeper understanding of E. coli in Vancouver’s waters, and might one day help in predicting spikes in the bacteria. 

Our team preparing water samples next to the Dragon Boat BC docks, which operate year-round.

We want more monitoring of Vancouver’s antiquated sewage system

According to Environment Canada, wastewater pollution is one of the largest sources of surface water pollution in the country. It is also the largest barrier to clean water, and a person's right to swim, drink and fish in waters across Canada. 

CSOs (Combined Sewer Overflows) happen in Vancouver because the city has "a combined sewer system, [where] stormwater runoff is combined in a single pipe with wastewater from homes, businesses, and industry. In heavy rains, high volumes of stormwater can exceed the capacity of a combined sewer system. The excess, untreated amounts overflow and empty directly into our waterways.”1

A goal of the Province of British Columbia is to “eliminate sewage overflows by 2050”. Combined Sewer Overflow Reports from Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (WSER) show that in 2017 39,060,422,000 m3 of effluent was deposited into Vancouver waterbodies, which is equivalent to the volume of 15.6 million Olympic swimming pools. Specifically, it was reported that the Heather St. CSO released 670,000,000 m3 of combined sewage into False Creek in 2017 (equivalent to the volume of 268,000 Olympic swimming pools).2 

The City of Vancouver has an extremely active waterfront that is accessible year-round. Seeing as these pipes overflow most often during heavy rainfall, we know that they are most likely to be flowing during Vancouver’s rainy winter months. CSOs are known to impact recreational water quality and increase a person's risk of waterborne illness if they come in contact with the polluted water. Some cities across Canada such as Kingston have started to publish real-time CSO alerts, which tell the public when a combined sewer is overflowing. This is something that we want Vancouver to also adopt, as it would be the most reliable way to know when local waters are at risk of contamination. In the meantime, we believe it is important to operate our program year-round in order to track the recreational water quality at all times of the year.

On average it rains 169 days out of the year in Vancouver. 

We want to know what is in the stormwater

In Vancouver, the winters not only bring heavy rains but also significant stormwater runoff from impermeable surfaces like roads, parking lots, and rooftops. When stormwater travels off these surfaces, it can pick up pollutants along the way before entering directly into our waterways, otherwise known as “nonpoint source pollution”. Stormwater runoff can elevate concentrations of E. coli and previous studies find a significant correlation between E.coli presence and recent rainfall events. There is currently no public data available on the levels of E.coli in False Creek following wet weather events3. However, by sampling throughout the year, we can build a strong foundation of long-term data to contribute to a better understanding of how Vancouver’s wet weather affects the quality of local waterways.

We want to track how illegal dumping affects False Creek

It is illegal to dump untreated sewage into False Creek, and the surrounding waters, from any marine vessel or watercraft.4 As of January 1, 2019, new bylaws required marinas within False Creek to provide boat pump-out stations and clear signs about the laws and requirements. Tracking how many vessels illegally dump their sewage into the waters in False Creek is a nearly impossible task. But these free pump-out services help to reduce illegal dumping and promote better water stewardship. By continuing to sample throughout the year, we can compare our data to that of the past, and track whether the contamination is decreasing as new by-laws, restrictions, and infrastructures are put in place.

Hundreds of boats anchor in False Creek throughout the year.

So that’s why, at 8:00 am, on a cold December morning, we hop on our bikes, weighed down with sampling equipment. We collect the necessary data and observations that will help protect recreational water users in False Creek and publish our data on Swim Guide for all to access. In the new year, we will gather our findings from a full year of sampling, in order to report on how our data correlate with various weather events and to track our environmental observations over time. Keep an eye out for this report on our website, newsletter, and Facebook, TwitterInstagram.

If you would like to join our team of volunteers who help us in our effort to ensure citizens have access to this data all year, you can sign up here. We hope to see you out on the water soon!

Sources

1 City of Vancouver. Separating sewage from rainwater. https://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/separating-sewage-from-rainwater.aspx

2 Metro Vancouver (2017). Wastewater, The 2017 Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District Environmental Management and Quality Control Annual Report. Pg. 97 Metro Vancouver. http://www.metrovancouver.org/services/liquid-waste/LiquidWastePublications/2017GVSDD-EMQCAnnualReport.pdf

3 Phippen, B, Sutherland, D. British Columbia Ministry of Environment. (2006). Assessment of Bacteriological Indicators in False Creek. https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/library/documents/bib97165.pdf

4 City of Vancouver. Anchoring. https://vancouver.ca/streets-transportation/anchoring.aspx

Thanks to our supporters

  • Ecomarine
  • Lush
  • MEC
  • Patagonia
  • Smak
  • Tides
  • Sitka
  • Woodtone
  • TD Friends of the Environment
  • Telus
  • Progressive Waste Solutions
  • Ocean Ambassadors
  • RBC Blue Water Project
  • BC Hydro
  • DM Foundation
  • City of North Vancouver
  • Jack Johnson
  • Flowlink