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User assessments key in determining quality of water through the Grand River watershed

With temperatures on the rise – finally – you might be thinking about hitting a local beach or swimming hole to cool off. Deciding if that’s advisable from a health standpoint just got a little easier courtesy of a new assessment format rolled out the Grand River Conservation Authority, which is responsible for watershed.

There is a tremendous variety of lakes, rivers, creeks and quarries available to habitants along the Grand River. And while these waters can be fun to enjoy, they also come with their own set of risks that the public need to keep aware of, water quality chief among them.

The new approach to tracking the water quality adopted by the GRCA along its various waterways relies more on the public’s involvement. Rather than tell people when it is unsafe, the GRCA is now asking people to “self assess” the safety of the water based on the environmental factors at play.

“We undertook a review of the way that we communicate information about water conditions in our swimming areas,” said spokesperson Lisa Stocco.

“(And) in reviewing our practice over many years, it became very clear that it wasn’t providing timely information, or relevant information in that there are a number of factors that impact water quality in a natural body of water.”

In previous years, the GRCA posted information on a weekly basis of the levels of E. coli in the water to inform the public. E. coli counts are generally considered a good benchmark of a natural body of water’s overall quality, and the provincial requirement is to issue a safety notice if that count exceeds 100 colony-forming units per 100ml of water.

Once a measure for E. coli was taken, that information was posted online for swimmers and visitors to gauge the safety of the water and the risks accordingly. However, what the GRCA and the municipal health authorities were finding was that the information being given to the public was not reliable, said Stocco.

“A water sample would be taken at the swimming areas, and it would be sent to a laboratory for testing, and that testing takes about 24 to 48 hours to culture and then for the results to come back to us,” she explained.

“So, if it was taken on a Monday, we were communicating about that on a Wednesday, or someone might have even been looking at that information even on a weekend following the Monday. They were using outdated information to make a decision about whether or not the water was safe for swimming or unsafe for swimming.

“And we found it was not providing relevant information given that it’s out of date and it can be impacted by so many factors.”

Instead, the GRCA decided this year to inform the public about the environmental factors that affect water quality, so they know what to look for and can make an informed decision for themselves.

Heavy rainfall in the last 24 to 48 hours, for instance, “has a significant impact on water quality,” as run-off can wash all sorts of bacteria and matter into the local waterways. If the water is cloudy (“unable to see feet in waist-deep water”) the waterbed has likely been disturbed, which the GRCA cautions can elevate bacteria levels. For the same reason, high winds also have the potential to stir up the sand and silt in the water, and drag up more bacteria. Finally, the GRCA is advising people to be aware of large numbers of birds and other wildlife, dead fish, algae, scum or debris in or near the water, which can likewise contribute to dirtying the water.

The recommendations for this new system were made to the GRCA board June 23 and have begun to be adopted across the watershed.

“We have signs in our parks that explain the conditions that people should look for, and provide some tips as well that can help them – that can help prevent them from getting sick,” said Stocco.

In particular, people should be sure not to swallow the water, and wash their hands after being in the water or playing near the water’s edge before eating.

“Those are really the two big things that people can do to help prevent any kind of illness from any kind of bacteria levels in the water.”

The GRCA is continuing to take samples of E. coli measurements on a bi-monthly basis, and that information is still available to the public on its website (www.grandriver.ca). A cautionary note is added, however, that: “while this data is not useful in identifying public health risk when swimming in natural water bodies, it is used to determine long term trends in the water quality at our swimming areas over time.”

The Grand River Conservation Authority is one of 36 such agencies in the province. It works across 39 municipalities in the Grand River watershed to monitor and maintain the local waters and surrounding lands.

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