State of the Beach/State Reports/BC/Water Quality

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Surf Zone Water Quality

Water Quality Monitoring Program

The deep waters of the Pacific Ocean control the water quality of much of British Columbia’s northern and central coasts, including the west coast of Vancouver Island. The consistent tides, strong winds and ocean currents characteristic of the exposed coasts along the Pacific Northwest create a high seawater turnover rate. In contrast, the Strait of Georgia has limited exchange with offshore waters. As such, this “inland sea” is more prone to pollution from the land and air which can accumulate, therefore detrimentally impacting water quality in this region. Smaller inlets, coves and bays within the Strait of Georgia are even more likely to be affected by human activities.


In Canada, the provinces and territories have primary responsibility over the waters that lie within their boundaries - including those that are used for recreation. Health Canada, the federal health department, is the steward for the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality. These guidelines are developed in partnership with the provinces and territories through a formal process requiring provincial/territorial consultation and approval. The guideline values are not regarded as legally enforceable standards, except where promulgated by the appropriate provincial or federal authority. The document serves as guidance to be used by the responsible Provincial/Territorial health or environment authorities when developing their own recreational water policies to address their specific needs. The 3rd edition of the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality has been released.

A presentation Canadian Recreational Water: Updated Guidelines and Research Activities was given at the U.S. EPA Beaches conference in Huntington Beach, California in April 2009.

It is rather difficult to obtain comprehensive data on water quality and beach closures in Canada, due to the high variability in data collection and reporting methods used by local municipalities. Nationally, wastewater treatment is managed by different levels of government. The municipal government has a statutory mandate to provide sewage treatment and to control discharges into the sewer systems. In British Columbia, the Environmental Management Act (formerly called the Waste Management Act) requires all municipalities to have a provincially approved liquid waste management plan. The provincial government is responsible for the regulation of all municipal sewage treatment operations through a system of permits, licenses and regulations. Finally, the federal Fisheries Act, which is enforced by both Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada, addresses a general prohibition against the release of deleterious substances into those waters frequented by fish. The federal government also enforces the Canadian Environmental Protection Act which governs the release of toxic substances into the environment.

The monitoring of recreational water quality in British Columbia is under the jurisdiction of the provincial Ministry of Health. The ministry is divided into several regions throughout the province where the local municipalities, parks, and the health departments work together to produce water quality assessments. Recreational water quality is extensively monitored during the swimming season, from May 1st to September 30th, and continued with less frequency throughout the remainder of the year. During the swimming season, recreational beaches are monitored on a weekly basis. Monitoring methods follow the Canadian Recreational Water Guidelines. Prior to 2012, a maximum level of 200 fecal coliform bacteria (FC) /100 millilitres (mL) of water was set for primary contact recreational activities. The Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality (April 2012) made a change for monitoring in marine waters by recommending that enterococcus be used as the primary indicator for fecal contamination. The guideline values for "primary contact activities" are:

  • Geometric mean concentration (minimum of five samples): less than or equal to 35 enterococci/100 mL
  • Single-sample maximum concentration: less than or equal to 70 enterococci/100 mL

The corresponding recommended values for fresh water are:

  • Geometric mean concentration (minimum of five samples): less than or equal to 200 E. coli/100 mL
  • Single-sample maximum concentration: less than or equal to 400 E. coli/100 mL

Typically, two to four sites are sampled along a given beach and five samples are collected from each site. The results are then expressed as a geometric mean over a 30 day period and posted online. After each sample a new geometric mean is calculated. When levels exceed the provincial health guidelines, health authorities require the beach owner (the local municipality or district) to post clear warning signs along the affected beach or shoreline until the water is determined to be safe for primary contact recreational activities.

In the greater Vancouver region, recreational water quality monitoring is conducted as a collaborative effort between the local municipalities, Metro Vancouver (formerly the Greater Vancouver Regional District or GVRD) and Vancouver Coastal Health. Monitoring is conducted at about 30 beaches (marine waters and fresh water) throughout the lower mainland. A list of these beaches and their most recent water quality data (E. coli per 100 mL water) is available in weekly Beach Water Quality Reports on the Vancouver Coastal Health website. Prior to August 2013, these monitoring reports used fecal coliform as an indicator bacteria rather than E. coli. Weekly reports for the May - September period back to 2010 are available on the Vancouver Coastal Health website.

Water quality on Vancouver Island is monitored by the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA), as sanctioned by the local municipalities and parks. Current information on the status of those recreational beaches which are monitored on Vancouver Island is available on the VIHA Website. The Beach Reports for South Island, Central Island and North Island beaches show the beach status (green/yellow/red) as well as the recent bacteria concentrations (enterococci for salt water beaches (marine waters) and E. coli for fresh water beaches). It should be noted that the criteria for green (no water quality issues), yellow (moderate water quality issues) and red (swimming not recommended) for marine waters are slightly different than recommended by Health Canada. For Vancouver Island marine waters, green corresponds to less than 35 enterococci per 100 mL water, yellow is for 35 to 175 enterococci per 100 mL water, and red is for 175 or above.

Beaches are selected using a classification system based on the number of swimmers, risk of pollution, sampling history and amount of water turn over. This classification system is used to group local beaches into three tiers, each with an associated testing protocol:

  • Tier 1 - Many people swim there annually, high bacterial counts have been discovered in the past and there may be potential sources of contamination near the beach. These beaches are sampled weekly during the swimming season.
  • Tier 2 - A moderate number of annual swimmers, a history of occasional poor samples and little chance of contamination. These beaches are sampled every two weeks during the swimming season.
  • Tier 3 - Few swimmers, a good sampling history, no sources of contamination and frequent water turn over due to tides, current and water flow. These beaches are only sampled when it is deemed necessary by an environmental health officer (VIHA).

Along the coast, Vancouver Coastal Health and Vancouver Island Health Authority are the only agencies currently testing recreational water quality. In other municipalities marine water quality testing is conducted for the purposes of monitoring bacterial contamination in shellfish habitat areas.

The Canadian Shellfish Sanitation Program

The Canadian Shellfish Sanitation Program (CSSP) monitors shellfish growing waters along the east and west coasts of Canada to ensure safe human consumption. The program is administered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Environment Canada (EC). Each area of the coast is sampled according to a schedule which takes into account harvesting intensity and the number of potential pollution sources in close proximity. Sample stations are located off recreational and commercial clam beaches, as well as aquaculture lease sites. A minimum of 15 samples from each station within a shellfish growing area is generally required in order to adequately classify an area. The 15 samples must be collected over a minimum one-year period. This aids in identifying pollution sources which may not be present year-round (e.g. heavy seasonal rainfall, increased summer boating traffic, or migratory birds and/or mammals). Water and shellstock samples must also meet the standards set in the CSSP manual for an area to remain open to harvesting. Due to the risk of bioaccumulation and the imposed threats for human health the standards for shellfish water quality testing are much more stringent than those used for recreational water quality. International shellfish water quality criteria state that classification decisions should be based on the most recent 15 sample results from a sampling station, and should result in the closure of an area if it exceeds one or both of the following two limits:

  • The median of the most recent 15 samples is greater than 14 FC/100 mL MPN (Most Probable Number).
  • More than ten percent of the most recent 15 samples exceed 43 FC/100 mL.

Along the west coast of Vancouver Island there are several sampling stations used for the purposes of shellfish water quality monitoring. Surfrider Foundation evaluated the monitoring data for those sample areas in close proximity to popular surfing beaches. These areas include Clayoquot Sound, Hesquiat Harbour, Nootka Sound and the Juan de Fuca Strait. The Clayoquot Sound region was sampled at five different stations between April 2002 and March 2008. The total number of samples for that period was 61, none of which were found to be over the limit of 43 FC/100 mL. Hesquiat Harbour had seven sample stations monitored from April 2002 through June 2008. The total number of samples taken was 79, with two samples reaching over the established limit. Nootka Sound was sampled between June 2000 and June 2008 at four stations and only one of the 53 samples taken was found to be over the limit. Finally, the Juan de Fuca region was sampled from June 2004 through September 2006. There were six sample stations in total and none of the 90 samples taken were found to be above the limit. From these four sampling regions it can be inferred that water quality along the west coast of Vancouver Island is relatively good. However, it should be noted that none of these sampling stations are used for monitoring recreational water quality and as such they simply give a general idea of the water quality in this region. In order to accurately monitor recreational water quality, testing would need to be done more frequently throughout the swimming season and in closer proximity to beach recreation sites to ensure public health is being protected.

Beach Closure Data

Metro Vancouver has been conducting seasonal monitoring of recreational water quality in the greater Vancouver region for nearly 50 years. Long term data for the five-year review period from 2002 to 2006 shows that overall the water quality of recreational beaches in the Lower Mainland was quite good. However, there were a few beaches which periodically exhibited poor water quality throughout the review period. Starting in the year 2002 there were 87 beach closure days, in 2003 and 2004 there were zero, in 2005 there were 73 closure days, and in 2006 there were 61 days.

Sewage Treatment

Unlike the United States and the European Union, Canada currently lacks national standards for sewage treatment protocol. As a result, sewage treatment falls under a patchwork of laws and standards (federal, provincial, municipal and international). As such, municipalities are forced to regulate sewage treatment standards at the local scale. The only federal laws pertaining to the contamination of marine ecosystems fall under the Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

New regulations are scheduled to be unveiled by the Canadian government in late 2009. The new rules will set performance benchmarks, timelines and monitoring and reporting requirements for the country's 4,000 wastewater facilities. The regulations will cover all wastewater systems operated by municipalities, the provincial and federal governments, and those on federal or aboriginal lands. Facilities that can't afford the upgrades or repairs can apply to Ottawa's infrastructure fund or borrow from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. More details were expected to emerge when the government published draft regulations in December 2009, which were expected to be revised and finalized in 2010.

There are five major waste water treatment plants (WWTP) in the greater Vancouver region. Iona Island and Lions Gate are two primary-level treatment plants which discharge to the Fraser River and Annacis Island, Lulu Island and North-west Langley each provide secondary-level treatment and discharge to the Georgia Strait and First Narrows section of the Burrard Inlet. The Iona Island WWTP was opened in 1963 and currently services 600,000 people in Vancouver, the University Endowment Lands, as well as parts of Burnaby and Richmond, making it the second largest WWTP in the lower mainland. The plant is serviced by a 7.5 kilometer outfall into the Strait of Georgia. The Lions Gate WWTP was opened in 1961 and services the 160,000 residents of West and North Vancouver. The largest WWTP in the Vancouver region is the Annacis Island plant which services the 740,000 residents of New Westminster, Port Moody, Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows, Maple Ridge, Surrey, Delta, Whiterock and Langley. The Lulu Island WWTP which was opened in 1973 is responsible for approximately 120,000 residents from Richmond. Finally, the smallest of the five plants, the North-west Langley plant, services the residents of Walnut Grove in Langley. According to the Metro Vancouver Website, regular tests are conducted at each WWTP to verify the effectiveness of the plant’s treatment methods and to fulfill the monitoring and reporting requirements established by the provincial government.

Although most of the local sewage goes through these treatment plants, raw sewage frequently backs up into the stormwater systems, accounting for the nearly 36 billion litres of untreated effluent entering local streams and the Pacific Ocean each year. Metro Vancouver has set a fifty year timeline for eliminating the occurrence of these raw sewage discharges, even though Fisheries and Oceans Canada considers them to be in direct violation of the Fisheries Act. In 2001, Metro Vancouver asked the provincial government to approve a sewage treatment plan with no guarantees that the Iona or Lions Gate sewage treatment plants will be upgraded to secondary treatment. The plan stated that Metro Vancouver would consider the feasibility of upgrading the system, but gave no firm commitment to action. Combined sewage and stormwater pipes would be gradually separated to eliminate raw sewage outflows, but the project completion would take fifty years. Both Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada have told Metro Vancouver that this proposed sewage treatment plan is inadequate. However, no changes have been made to force their immediate upgrades and protect the surrounding waterways and associated marine and coastal habitats.

The Capital Regional District (CRD) is responsible for managing wastewater treatment for the estimated 330,000 residents in the greater Victoria region of Vancouver Island. There are currently eight wastewater treatment plants operating under CRD jurisdiction. According to “The Path Forward” the wastewater treatment plan presented to the British Columbia Minister of Environment, the CRD is planning to build a minimum of four additional facilities to offset the pressures of increased population growth. Of the WWTPs currently present two use only preliminary treatment strategies, Clover Point and Macaulay Point; five use secondary treatment methods; and one is currently conducting tertiary treatment.

The Clover Point and Macaulay Point WWTPs serve the Core Area which includes the municipalities of Colwood, Esquimalt, Langford, Oak Bay, Saanich, Victoria and View Royal. Sewage from these communities is simply screened to exclude objects larger than six millimeters prior to being discharged into the Pacific Ocean. The six millimeter screens used by the Clover Point and Macaulay Point WWTPs remove large solids, but few of the smaller fecal solids and none of the toxic cleaners, solvents, medicines, or other contaminants, which are eventually discharged through the outfalls. This form of preliminary treatment has been the center of a great deal of public outcry and the CRD is currently planning to upgrade the wastewater treatment techniques applied to the Core Area (see below for more details on this). A variety of chemical substances have been measured in the wastewater emitted from these outfalls including metals, PAHs, phthalates, phenol and chlorinated phenolics, ketones, and volatile organic compounds. The Macaulay Point facility, built in 1915, transports raw sewage 1800 metres offshore before releasing it into the Pacific Ocean at a depth of 60 metres. Clover Point was constructed in 1981 and discharges wastewater 1160 metres offshore at a depth of 65 metres. Screenings from both facilities are trucked to the Hartland Landfill for disposal.

The Saanich Peninsula WWTP has been in operation since 2000 and uses secondary treatment methods. This facility services North Saanich, Central Saanich, Sidney, the Victoria International Airport, the Institute of Ocean Sciences, as well as the Tseycum and Pauquachin First Nations communities. The Port Renfrew WWTP, which services only 70 households, uses secondary treatment as well. The Cannon Crescent WWTP provides sewage treatment for a small portion of the Magic Lake Sewer area on North Pender Island and also uses secondary treatment methods. The Malview WWTP also uses secondary treatment, servicing Salt Spring Island. The Schooner WWTP goes a step beyond secondary treatment by using ultraviolet disinfection for effluent and ocean discharge. This plant services approximately 550 households in the Magic Lake Estates subdivision on North Pender Island. Finally, the only tertiary treatment plant is the Ganges Harbour WWTP which services the community of Ganges on Salt Spring Island. This facility uses a membrane bioreactor which provides an extremely high quality of effluent. The CRD is currently investigating the use of reclaimed water from this facility for irrigation to offset potable water use.

As mentioned above, Victoria remains one of the last cities in Canada to lack even primary treatment of its sewage. Sewage is screened for solid objects larger than about a quarter inch, but isn't treated beyond that. More than 45 million liters of raw sewage are discharged into the Victoria harbour annually. The Capital Regional District, pumps five million litres of sewage per hour into the harbour from two one-meter diameter pipes located 65 meters under the surface by twin 1000 horsepower motors. Not only is this a concern for the health of local recreational water users, but the outfalls are located on a major salmon migration route and a 60 square kilometer area surrounding the outfall is closed to all shellfish harvesting. This is in direct violation of the federal Fisheries Act and although the province has brought in new Municipal Sewage Regulations, designed to move all sewage treatment to secondary levels, the city of Victoria has made no plans to move to even primary treatment. Furthermore, the district of Victoria has set aside no land for the development of a new sewage treatment facility.

An article published in the Times Colonist in January 2012 stated that a report given to the region's environment committee concluded that shrimp, mollusk and sea worm populations near the Macaulay Point sewage outfall station have been "highly degraded." The benthic invertebrate communities - animals that live in the sediment - have significantly declined in health since 2008, the report says. The most significant outfall effects are within about 200 metres east of the end of the Macaulay Point pipe. However, the report noted that "more detailed assessments indicate that truly negative effects have become more pronounced since 2008."

In 2006, the British Columbia government ordered the Victoria area to develop a sewage treatment plan after an independent report commissioned by the area's municipalities concluded that relying on water dilution and tidal currents was "not a long-term answer to waste disposal." Progress was finally reported in June 2009 when regional politicians approved a $1.2 billion plan to build four treatment plants to handle about 34 million gallons of raw sewage that Victoria and six suburbs pump into the Strait of Juan de Fuca each day. The Capital Regional District, the government for 13 municipalities on the southern end of Vancouver Island, voted to build four plants in Esquimalt, Saanich East, the West Shore and Clover Point, Victoria. The province ordered the plants to be online by 2016. The date is likely to be pushed into the future because the region is still waiting for the provincial and federal governments to confirm their parts of three-way funding for the $782-million project. In July 2012 the federal, provincial and regional governments announced a deal to fund the proposed $782-million project. Despite this, there is continued resistance to the program for sewage treatment upgrades and there has been a proposal to delay the project until 2040! In 2014 plans for sewage treatment upgrades were moving forward but disputes over land use had prevented final selection of a treatment plant site. In July 2014 a U.S. Congressman from Washington sent a letter to the U.S. EPA, urging them to put pressure on the Canadian Government to end the practice of dumping untreated sewage in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The letter elicited a lukewarm response from B.C. Premier Christy Clark. This issue continued to make news in 2016.

The district of Tofino has only primary sewage treatment. In October 2007, the provincial Ministry of Environment imposed a time limit of five years for the city to come up with a budget to being moving to secondary treatment. The Tofino city council voted to implement the liquid waste management plan and begin construction of a treatment plant, over a twenty year period. However, representatives from the ministry confirmed that the district had exceeded its outflow permit on at least two occasions. This was likely due to storm water entering the system and exceeding the carrying capacity of the drains. The district, however, has not exceeded provincially accepted levels for fecal coliform, ammonia-nitrogen and nitrate concentration at the outfall point and as such the beaches have remained open for recreational use.

The Uculet harbour, located just south of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island, has endured a shellfish closure since 1972 as a result of high contamination levels. An extensive history of water contamination caused by inadequate wastewater treatment has resulted in dismal water quality in the harbour. Today, local fish plants, residences, and businesses are all hooked up to a single septic system that pumps effluent into sewage lagoons and then out into the harbour through a 1.6 kilometer long outfall. This new outfall system was installed in 1999 and has resulted in improved water quality throughout the harbour. However, the shellfish closure remains in place and the Ittatsoo reserve is still discharging untreated sewage directly into the ocean. Other sources of contamination include stormwater culverts, eroding scrap metal, abandoned cars and boats and a variety of garbage piles located along the shore.

Sewage Discharges from Ships

Vancouver Coastal Health’s Medical Health Officers are concerned about proposed changes to Transport Canada’s sewage discharge regulations, which could mean more beach closures in the future. Transport Canada currently allows small boats to discharge their untreated sewage three nautical miles away from the coast but they are considering changes that would allow boats to discharge just one nautical mile away. If the proposed changes Transport Canada is considering do go ahead, there should be a plan for protecting our beaches, such as designating them as protected areas where no sewage can be discharged. Such No Discharge Zones are common in coastal areas in the United States.

National Sewage Report Card

In 2004, Sierra Legal Defence published the third National Sewage Report Card to review Canadian sewage treatment protocol. Each of the 22 cities assessed were provided with a letter grade based on the level of sewage treatment use, volume of raw sewage discharged, compliance with laws and regulations, type of disinfection used, method of sludge disposal, prevalence of combined sewer outflows and commitment to improvement. According to the report, in British Columbia an estimated 80% of the municipalities discharging sewage into the Pacific Ocean use only primary sewage treatment measures. Vancouver was given a ‘D’ grade in 2004, which was down from the ‘C’ given in 1999. In 2004, Victoria was deemed suspended from the grading system, down from an ‘F-‘ in 1999 as a result of its blatant refusal to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities. The municipalities of Tofino and Uculet were not included in the National Sewage Report Card.

Public Education

The City of Vancouver website has some good information on conserving and protecting water and what not to pour down the drain.

Since 1990, the David Suzuki Foundation has been working to find ways for society to live in balance with the natural world. The foundation focuses on four main areas: oceans and sustainable fishing; climate change and clean energy; sustainability; and the Nature Challenge. Their methods focus on the use of science and education to promote solutions that conserve nature and help achieve sustainability within a generation. Cleaning Up Our Ocean: A report on ocean pollution from shipping-related sources in the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area (Pncima) on the British Columbia coast was published in April 2009.

Ecojustice (formerly known as Sierra Legal Defense) is Canada’s largest and foremost non-profit environmental law organization. The organization is dedicated to defending the Canadian right to a healthy environment by enabling citizens to expose lawbreakers and hold governments accountable while setting powerful precedents for clean water, natural spaces, healthy communities and solutions for global warming.

The Georgia Strait Alliance was established in 1990 as a non-profit charitable organization, with the focus of protecting the marine environment within the Strait of Georgia and its surrounding tributaries. This ecosystem, which has been deemed Canada’s most at-risk natural environment, is also home to nearly 70% of all British Columbia residents. The Georgia Strait Alliance uses education, advocacy, and hands-on stewardship to address those issues impacting the Georgia Strait marine environment.

People Opposed to Outfall Pollution (more commonly known as POOP) Victoria was formed in 2004. The major focus of POOP Victoria is to raise awareness and financial support for issues associated with raw sewage outfalls] in the greater Victoria region. Their mascot, Mr.Floatie, is a giant piece of poo who enjoys touring the Victoria region and raising awareness using shock-value techniques to engage local residents and tourists alike.

The Victoria Sewage Treatment Alliance is a group of like-minded individuals and organizations focused on attaining adequate sewage treatment for the City of Victoria. The group works to inform the government and general public about the benefits of adequate sewage treatment for the long-term health of the people, local communities, and marine ecosystems.

The T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation was launched in 1981 with a focus on habitat-related campaigns including efforts to bring to an end to pulp and sewage pollution, destructive logging practices, and water diversions. The organization uses a combination of research, education, alliance building, policy development, and campaigning to ensure fish-bearing waters are not dammed, diverted, wasted, or degraded.

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