June 5, 2018
By Arianne Robinson
Toronto’s beaches are now open for business with lifeguards on duty, but on Tuesday, members of the public said the message on whether the water is safe to swim in is not as clear as it could be.
Along Cherry Beach, multiple signs and flag colours give conflicting messages. One flagpole had the Blue Flag flying high, and another nearby had a red flag – meant to communicate opposite messages. Two lifeguards sit on a dock out of sight from the beach, not far from the big “No lifeguard on duty” sign. Another sign says to “Obey Warning Flags at all times” and “no flag… no lifeguard on duty.”
The conflicting messages meant visitors to the beach on Tuesday lacked a clear picture of how safe the water quality was for swimming.
There are three different ways one can access information on the levels of E. coli at city beaches: checking the city’s website, calling the city’s beach hotline, and finding the signs and flags in person at the beach itself. There is also a pamphlet at Cherry Beach advertising a water quality mobile app, but it could not be found online.
However, for some, the problem starts with not knowing that water quality on Toronto beaches can be a problem at all. One 22-year-old at Cherry Beach on Tuesday, who preferred not to be named, said he had no idea E. coli was a concern, but added he would love to know where he can find out the information.
When he does come to the beach to swim, instead of locating the small sandwich board and flag, he usually just goes with the crowd, but said he would still swim even if others weren’t around. “I love swimming,” he said, calling himself a shark.
Other beach visitors such as Colin Berman, a landscape architect, is aware of the city’s safety criteria.
“Before the city started putting the message out through the media that it’s safe to swim, I would say I probably didn’t swim.” Now, he does about once a year.
Asked how he finds out if the water is safe, Berman said, “I check the city website before we come down, and definitely if we’re going to swim.”
Berman thinks even more signs would be useful. “Probably some signage right on the beach, like, very evident signs, would help.”
Nearby, a sign for the city’s beach hotline is in clear view, but other visitors found the voicemail confusing.
Angela Vang, a student visiting Toronto from Kitchener, Ont., did not see the city’s flag that marked the water quality at Cherry Beach, but did see the sign for the city’s beach information phone line.
She has gone swimming at the beach before, although not while a lifeguard was on duty, and decided today to try calling the number.
“I called and the hotline told me a bunch of facts about Ph level … it never said this specific beach was safe to swim in,” Vang told Signal Toronto.
In fact, the beach hotline had a day-old message that did not state that swimming was not recommended at Cherry Beach on Tuesday.
The city told Signal Toronto via email that “The recording that was heard is a test message. As it is the beginning of the season, TPH is working to ensure that the hotline system is working by performing repeated testing. The hotline will reflect the results posted on the website as of tomorrow.”
As for the Blue Flag certification, Kelsey Scarfone, Blue Flag program manager at Environmental Defence, said they do not lower and raise the flag on a daily basis, even if E. coli levels were high. “It’s tricky because in Toronto, so much of the time, especially with Blue Flag beaches, situations dissipate within a day … but if there was a situation where let’s say there was three days straight of high E. coli samples … I would chat with beach managers and say let’s just lower it for now until we kinda get this back to normal, but I don’t think that’s ever really happened with E. coli at the Blue Flag Toronto beaches for as long as they’ve been Blue Flag.”
The Blue Flag certification means the beach water quality meets the provincial requirements 80 per cent of the season.
Vladimir Rodriquez, a courier, doesn’t use the city’s beaches, but remembers a time when the city’s beaches were not safe to swim. “I just never felt that they were clean … I just feel like they’re not clean. I go swimming in lakes around Ontario. I go swimming in Georgian Bay … the water’s really clear – crystal-clear blue – as opposed to here. It’s kind of green.”
Asked whether there is anything the city could do to convince him of the safety level, he replied, “To be honest, probably not.”