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Great Lakes Article:

Toronto beaches tapped for North America's first safe-swimming program
By Noah Love
Canoe C-News, Canada
Published June 30th, 2004

TORONTO (CP) - Despite their long-standing public image as polluted and dangerous, half of the beaches in Canada's most populous city have been tapped to apply for a coveted European "eco-label" awarded to the world's safest beaches.

The European Blue Flag label is currently flown on 2,900 beaches and marinas in 24 countries around the world, part of a Denmark-based program that uses 27 different environmental markers to identify safe swimming spots.

But the fact that seven beaches along the shore of the notoriously dirty Lake Ontario are considered worthy of the Blue Flag is raising eyebrows in a city where polluted beaches have become part of Toronto lore.

"It looks cleaner than usual, but I wouldn't let my kids swim in it; I wouldn't let my dog swim in it," said Natalie Marmer, 33, during a visit Wednesday to Beaches Park, which ranked seventh on Toronto's safe list and which will likely be teeming with tourists and vacationers for the Canada Day holiday.

"It's been known to be polluted for so long. I was born and raised in Toronto and I've been told not to swim in the water for so long, I would never swim here."

The seven beaches identified by the environmental group Environmental Defence to be worthy of the Blue Flag will be the first in North America to apply for the label this fall. They must pass tests conducted by a Canadian jury, and the head office in Denmark makes the final decision.

If all goes well, the flags will be flying over those beaches that pass the test by next summer - just the start of what Sarah Winterton, Environmental Defence's program director, hopes will be a flurry of blue flags across the country.

"Ideally, we'll be expanding the program over the next few years so that we can have a consistent message about beaches across Canada," Winterton said.

To fly a Blue Flag, a beach has to meet 27 strict criteria in areas like water quality, environmental management, and safety.

"Toronto has the most rigorous water monitoring program in Ontario," said Mike Price, general manager of water and wastewater services for the city.

Environmental Defence is working with the city to ensure that the remaining standards are met, including providing information on natural areas, creating additional opportunities for environmental education and improving access to emergency telephones.

On Wednesday, the city was warning swimmers away from only three of the city's 14 beaches - Sir Casimir Gzowski and Sunnyside in the west end and Bluffer's Park in the east.

The move will give the Blue Flag program its first presence in North America despite being used widely in Europe, South Africa, and recently the Caribbean.

But it would surely be a boon to Toronto's oft-maligned beaches, which have been plagued for years with pollution problems, including chronic E. coli contamination and infestations of zebra mussels.

Winterton acknowledged that overcoming the image of Toronto's beaches will not be easy. But the bottom line, she said, is that they're safe.

"As an independent third party monitoring the water quality, we're able to say that we've done the study, and these beaches are good," she said.

"The city is engaged in a rigorous water monitoring program, so they always know what's happening in terms of water quality at the beaches."

Indeed, there are those in Toronto who have long known where to go for the safest swim.

"I trust the quality of the water," said Terry-Lynn Gyory, 29, who routinely goes for a dip at the city's top-ranked spot, Clarke Beach, formerly known as Cherry Beach.

"I've been coming here for years and we've never had any problems."

The mother of two said she reads water quality indexes on the Internet before deciding which beach to take her kids to during the summer - and not all of them are up to standard, most notably Ashbridge's Bay, which is also home to a long-controversial sewage treatment plant.

"When we go to Ashbridge's Bay, we only let the kids go in up to their knees."


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