The sand at Woodbine Beaches feels hot enough to melt the flip-flops off your feet.
The air is thick and foreheads are dripping, but few sun seekers choose to cool off in the lake.
Tamia Sparks, who beelines to Woodbine nearly every summer weekend, says she would rather see her 7-year-old daughter build sand castles than venture into the water.
“I’m scared,” Sparks says. “I don’t want her to come out with an infection or something.”
She lets her daughter wade and splash around but swimming is a no-no.
Toronto beaches just can’t seem to shake Lake Ontario’s dirty reputation even though seven of them — including Woodbine — are rated among the best in the world by the international Blue Flag Programme.
The blue flag is an eco-label awarded to beaches that meet strict environmental and safety standards.
“It’s not easy to get a blue flag,” says Toronto Water spokesperson Cheryl San Juan. “These are world-class beaches.”
“Any of our blue flag beaches would rival any beach on Georgian Bay,” she says.
But local beachgoers seem to find that hard to believe.
“It doesn’t look safe,” says Megan Robertson, eyeing the cloudy Woodbine surf. Still, she’s chosen to swim. Her braided hair is soaked and she’s basking in the glory of a friendly water fight.
“It’s pretty hot so I want to cool off,” she says.
Robertson didn’t know that Ontario has the strictest recreational water quality standards in North America. If a beach measures above 100 parts E. coli in 100 ml of water it is classified not safe for swimming. The national standard is set at 200 and the U.S. standard is 235.
Lifeguards remain on duty for those who want to swim despite high levels, but it’s not recommended.
The hardest part of getting blue flag status is meeting water quality standards. That’s why Marie Curtis Park East Beach, Sunnyside and Rouge remain challenges. Still, Toronto beaches have come a long way in the past decade. In 2005 only four beaches had blue flags.
To score a blue flag a beach must be safe for swimming at least 80 per cent of the time. Most of Toronto’s blue flag beaches are safe more than 90 per cent of the time.
Generally, if a beach is posted as unsafe it’s because of a major storm. During heavy rain, sewers can overflow and infect the swimming area. But sewer maintenance and treatment of overflow has reduced the weather’s impact in recent years.
E. coli levels for each beach are posted online and by the shore every day. The reading is not 100 per cent reliable because it comes from water samples collected over the previous two days. But Michael D’Andrea, Toronto Water’s director of water management infrastructure, says they are currently working on a predictive model that would give a more accurate daily reading.
The city’s goal is to score blue flags for all 11 beaches. Next year they hope to add Scarborough’s Bluffer’s Beach Park to the list.
Stacey Brittan read about the blue flag program before hitting Woodbine with her two boys during this week’s heat wave. But even though she knows about the safety standards she still doesn’t feel comfortable letting her kids wade in any deeper than chest level.
“The beach had a really bad rap years ago and I don’t think people have gotten over it,” she says.
“I still have that hesitation because I grew up with it.”
BLUE FLAG BEACHES
Ward’s Island Beach
Hanlan’s Point Beach
Kew Balmy Beach
Gibraltar Point Beach
Centre Island Beach
To score a blue flag, a beach must meet a long list of standards set out in four categories. Here is an overview:
First, it has to be green and clean — no unauthorized camping or driving, no dumping and strict control of doggie doo.
The beach should promote environmental education activities, display maps and develop a beach code of conduct.
The water quality must be supreme. No industrial waste, no sewage leaks and the beach must be tested regularly for E.coli and other bacteria levels.
Finally, safety matters. The beach must have lifeguards, first aid equipment and drinking water. And at least one Blue Flag beach in each municipality must be accessible to people with physical disabilities.
For the full list of standards: http://www.blueflag.ca/