Why Vancouver’s open waters are so frequently closed

And how we’re almost certainly making the problem worse

August 18, 2016

By Steven Threndyle

Few rites of the short Canadian summer are as refreshing as dunking one’s body in bracing, crystal-clear water. But good luck finding some here: Vancouver’s beaches, which are dotted along inlets and bays, are perhaps better suited for volleyball than they are for a long-distance swim. Choppy waves churned up by westerly winds often turn the water from brown ale to cloudy Hefeweizen, with a top layer of seagull feathers, stray logs, and perhaps the odd jellyfish-like condom struggling to the surface.

It was so bad in 2014 that a month-long closure of many North Shore beaches was required—one that resulted in a house call being made to the West Vancouver District council by North Shore medical health officer Dr. Mark Lysyshyn. He had the unenviable task of trying to explain why E. coli counts were more than quadruple the allowable level (830, to be exact) on the shore of Canada’s richest postal code, and his answer was hardly reassuring. “We aren’t sure of the source of the bacteria. But we can pretty much guarantee that at some point in the summer, Lower Mainland swimming beaches will be unsafe to enter.”

He was right. Whytecliff Park—a destination popular with neophyte divers—was again closed last summer when E. coli levels crested the 200 barrier (the limit for safe swimming). But while it might be tempting to blame that and other beach closures on the gigantic cruise ships that routinely set up shop in our harbour, the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion. “Sewage on cruise ships is treated to a higher standard than Metro Vancouver’s treatment facility below the Lions Gate Bridge,” Lysyshyn says. And indeed, cruise ships and container vessels cannot discharge any waste until they are 12 nautical miles from the outer limit of our coastal waters, somewhere beyond the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Instead, the blame almost certainly belongs to us. If you want some proof of that, well, all you need to do is head down to False Creek.

On a crystalline May evening, members of an elite 20-person team from the False Creek Canoe Club strike a noble pose as the prow of their dragon boat surges into a stiff breeze. In the bow, Teresa Dobson is getting soaked as spray flies off the bow and paddles. She’s not terribly worried about the water quality now. But later in the summer—especially if the crew ventures toward Science World—they’ll be splashed by waterborne bacteria that was over 5,000 units per 100 mL of water last summer (25 times the allowable amount). It’s not coming from the dragon boaters, either. Some of the most recent data on the health of False Creek waters was compiled in a 30-page report by fourth-year UBC students Aneeta Antony, Daisy Hsu, Eric Chen, Jiayun Chen, and Owen Sondergeld. Their team collected water samples from various points in False Creek, and one location raised plenty of red flags: a marina at Fishermen’s Wharf had E. coli readings far higher than the rest of the eastern, central, and western parts of the inlet.

Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the Georgia Strait Alliance—which, incidentally, recently awarded the operator of Fishermen’s Wharf with its coveted Five Anchors certification for environmental best practices—says she wasn’t aware of the UBC study. But, she says, it’s not fair to blame the problem solely on boaters. “There can be many factors in why levels are high at one location and not another. There might have been an accidental discharge at the time.” Wilhelmson concedes that there is a tradition of “live-aboard” boats in False Creek, but she points out that they exist elsewhere. “We don’t want to paint boaters with a broad brush,” she says. “We need a conversation about being a responsible boat owner.” The GSA has worked to educate both boaters and marina owners on the best green practices, but apparently the habits of some old salts die hard.

One person down in the brine is marine diver Stephen Paetkau from Skookum Yacht Services. “I use a wetsuit, but in the summer months my face and hands are exposed for long periods of time,” he says. Over the years, he’s simply accepted high levels of E. coli as an occupational hazard and places blame on both the city and the federal Ministry of Transport for not enforcing its guidelines on recreational boaters. “The city does not give a shit about water quality. For one thing, it takes two hours to pump out your holding tank into a pumping station. For another, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans knows that there are a lot of sneak-aboard tenants who are pumping effluent overboard.” Paetkau’s proposed solution is to have a marina employee inspect any boats coming into False Creek and dump dye into their holding tank. “Then, you could tell who the offenders are and deal with them. It would cost time and moorage costs would rise, but it would solve some of the problem,” he says.

Dragon boat paddler Andrea Dillon lives on a floating home moored in Sea Village on False Creek and has had a love affair with the sea life, right down to being able to tell you that a dozen sea otters and over 300 crabs frolic in the waters nearby. Still, even that relationship has its limits. “I would far rather be on the surface of False Creek than be swimming in it,” she says. She’s not alone. On this particular Thursday night, False Creek is a nautical parade of self-propelled, low-tech craft. There are three dragon boat crews, several outrigger canoes and, later, more than a hundred sea kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders, and surf skiers taking part in the weekly MEC Big Chop paddle race. Dillon believes data is what’s needed to ensure that Vancouver’s marine health is taken seriously. Right now, she says, the park board has no idea of how many paddlers, swimmers, or sunbathers frequent Vancouver waters. She has her own estimates, though. “I would bet that in the course of a summer it’s in the tens, maybe hundreds of thousands.”

False Creek isn’t as toxic as it used to be. The city is upgrading its storm sewers and sewage treatment facilities to minimize contamination during spring runoff, and Dillon says the water is cleaner than it was back in Vancouver’s industrial age. Then there’s divers like Paetkau, who could be considered living proof that it’s not necessarily dangerous. “I’ve been diving underneath boats for almost 15 years and have never gotten sick or had an ear infection. Heck, I might even be a poster boy for the health of False Creek,” he says. At the height of the E. coli outbreak last summer, meanwhile, Vancouver’s director of water, sewers, and energy argued that if boaters would do their part and use the free pumping stations, False Creek might one day be clean enough for swimming. “We’d like it to be one day,” Brian Crowe told the Huffington Post, “but we’re not there yet.”

Until we are, there’s going to be a certain amount of risk that comes with being in that water. “You’ve got 20 paddlers stroking at the same time,” Teresa Dobson says, her top and shorts soaked in sea water after a night’s worth of paddling. “There’s a lot of water that comes off the bow and from the paddles.” She notes that there are dragon boat teams made up of people such as cancer survivors and even a team of organ transplant survivors. “These are people who have really been through a lot,” Andrea Dillon says. “We want to make sure that the water quality on False Creek is absolutely safe for everybody, and the fact is that there are people at risk.”

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