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Swimmers can get sick or even die if they ingest dangerous E. coli strains present in beach water.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

As thousands gathered at Vancouver’s beaches for the first day of the annual fireworks festival, ocean-water contamination forced the city to close Kitsilano Beach for swimming. It’s a sad irony that high E. coli counts periodically shut down swimming at many of Vancouver’s beautiful beaches during July and August, the two months when it’s hot enough to swim.

E. coli, for anyone who isn’t already retching at the thought, is a bacterium found in digestive tracts of people and animals. It is spread in sewage; our own, of course, but also through dog poop and droppings from ducks and Canada geese, which are abundant and seem to delight in stopping traffic at major thoroughfares with their long lines of ducklings and goslings. You can get sick or even die if you ingest dangerous E. coli strains, which is why tests are done and beaches closed when limits are exceeded.

This year, despite a relatively cool summer, Kitsilano, Sunset Beach in Vancouver’s West End, Trout Lake in East Vancouver and Ambleside Beach in West Vancouver have had swimming closings. And if the weather really heats up this month, others may well join that list. Each summer, the closings receive a flurry of media attention questioning why this problem persists in Vancouver, a city that trades on its green reputation. Vancouverites have long chided Victoria for being the last major coastal community in North America discharging untreated sewage into the ocean.

Yet during big storms, the same thing happens in Vancouver. Half of the city’s storm and sanitary sewers are still combined and when overloaded by heavy rain, dump the excess, including raw sewage, into the ocean to prevent basement flooding. When news of beach closings broke this year, city council and the park board voted to investigate ways to speed up the city’s sewer-line-replacement program. This was a well-intentioned move that will absolutely help reduce pollution at certain times of year.

But it isn’t clear it will solve the summer beach-closing problems.

Big storms that cause the overflows tend to occur in winter. By the time summer comes, it’s reasonable to assume the contaminated water has been flushed away by tides, says Jimmy Zammar, the city’s director of integrated strategy and utilities planning.

So, are combined sewers unfairly taking the rap for high summertime E. coli counts?

Maybe. Mr. Zammar says the city, Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health monitor and test water at all the sewer outfalls, but “it’s really hard to trace the source.” He notes the Kits Beach closing coincided with the fireworks festival that draws record numbers of boats to English Bay. It could be that irresponsible boaters are causing the problem by dumping sewage into the ocean instead of using pump-out stations the city provides for free. Dogs don’t help either, although most dog owners pick up after their pets. And there isn’t much that can be done about the geese.

The city currently spends about $30-million a year on sewer replacement, which was not scheduled to be finished until 2050. Council now hopes to speed the completion date to 2029. Working faster would mean more neighbourhood disruption as roads are ripped up to do the work and more money shuffled to the project at the expense of other city services. City staff will be back next year with a report outlining the trade-offs, and then council will decide. Mr. Zammar says there is no doubt the work needs to get done.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States has ordered many American cities to get cracking. Technology and techniques for wastewater treatment are improving yearly and Vancouver is in a good position to improve on best practices, he says.

As for summer beach closings, part of Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung’s sewer motion might help fix the problem for free. It calls for the city to work with Transport Canada, which controls ocean use, to declare Burrard Inlet and ocean waters around Vancouver’s beaches no-discharge zones for all boaters.

The trouble is enforcement; it’s almost as hard to catch a stealthy boat dumper as it is to stop a goose. Still, we need to try. Our summer fun and clean, green reputation depends on it.

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