The Denmark-based Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) will be giving its Blue Flag seal of approval to four city beaches today - their guarantee that these pieces of our shoreline are fit for splashing. We're thrilled someone is working on our H2O consciousness, especially during another blistering heat wave. But don't assume it means our water is poison-free. This Blue Flag could be a red herring.
T.O. beaches to receive Blue Flag
Cherry, Hanlan's Point, Ward's Island and Woodbine
What won beaches the designation
The fact that E. coli levels (that's animal waste, folks) are within acceptable levels 80 per cent of the time.
Are Toronto's beaches really that clean?
No. In fact, seven of the city's 14 beaches were closed on average three-quarters of the time last summer because of elevated E. coli levels.
Why a Blue Flag may not be all that impressive
International standards for beach water quality are based on E. coli levels as high as 2,000 counts per 100ml, 20 times dirtier than Ontario's standard of 100 counts per 100mL.
The fine print
Only five of the FEE's 27 criteria for a Blue Flag relate to water quality. The rest have to do with environmental education and putting recycling bins on the beach. So as long as you're within E. coli standards, anything short of a sewage pipe going directly into the water should buy a passing grade.
Industrial and sewage-related toxins aren't considered in the Blue Flag evaluation - which means that the 175 million kilograms of carcinogens, respiratory toxins and ozone-depleting substances making their way into Lake Ontario every year don't figure into the FEE's equation.
Why eco groups like Environmental Defence believe the Blue Flag designation is important anyway
They say it will help residents reconnect with the waterfront they've been turning their backs on for years - and keep pressure on the city to keep beaches open.
Why the city likes the flag idea
It's a tourism draw. Some of the coolest beaches in Europe and the Caribbean fly the flag.
So is it all PR?
Maybe. T.O.'s beaches are the first in all of Canada to receive Blue Flags, but we all know BC and PEI (and a few other parts of the country) have more pristine beaches.
The bigger problem
Stormwater runoff and the illegal and accidental hook-up of sanitary drains to the stormwater system, especially in older parts of the city, means human waste and other contaminants are ending up untreated in the lake.
What the city's doing
Spending $1 billion on a Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan to reduce waste discharges into T.O.'s waterways.
Why it's too little too late
The plan will take 25 years to complete, but we want to go swimming today.