Test the waters: Learning about the Westboro Beach bacteria levels

A photo of ducks and geese on Westboro Beach in the early morning on July 28, 2020.
A staff member at Ottawa Public Health takes a sample of the water at a beach in the city. Photo courtesy of Ottawa Public Health.

By Charlie Senack

For over 100 years, Westboro Beach has been a popular swimming hole in the Kitchissippi neighbourhood.

According to Friends of Westboro Beach, the area was first recognized as a site for swimming in 1910 when the “Clarella subdivision plan” designated three parcels of land for public swimming. But it wasn’t until 1926 when the Westboro Board of Trade supported swimming on the site, despite being privately owned at the time. 

 If you have visited Westboro Beach recently, you may have noticed a red flag flying multiple times this summer advising beach goers to stay out of the water due to high bacteria levels. Ottawa Public Health said there is no need to worry, but everyone should take precautions when going for a swim. 

“Westboro Beach is one of the city beaches that commonly has no swimming advisories, about one third of the time,” said Martha Robinson, program development officer at Ottawa Public Health, who is coordinating the beach sampling program this year. 

“It’s subject to both dry weather, high bacteria counts and wet weather,” she added. 

Robinson said Westboro Beach is unique in terms of its geographical location, and they believe that’s part of the reason why bacteria levels are often high at the beach. 

If you look upstream, she said, there is no sewage treatment plant or combined sewer overflows — two things which would possibly help keep bacteria levels low. 

“I would say the most likely source of bacteria levels at the beach really comes down to two things,” said Robinson. “One would be the local bird population….In my experience, the ducks there are very tame because people feed them and you can often see them outside of the swimming area with their babies at this time of the year. Birds create many kids of bacteria when they poop just like humans do.” 

Robinson said the second source for high bacteria levels is the location of the beach. Wind often comes over the Ottawa River, bringing warm water up to the surface which washes onto shore. 

“We find often that when the wind is coming towards the beach with a bit of wave action, it’s probably washing up water that contains higher levels of bacteria just because it’s not being sent down the river and off to another location,” she said. “It’s just being pushed onto the beach.”

No-swim advisories are commonly issued when bacteria levels exceed provincial guidelines for swimming, which is more than 200 E. coli per 100 ml of water when averaged across five samples. 

As an example, Ottawa Public Health reported E. coli levels at 238 per 200 ml of water at Westboro Beach on July 7.  

A photo of ducks and geese on Westboro Beach in the early morning on July 28, 2020.
Ducks and geese take a dip in the water at Westboro Beach on July 28, 2020. Photo by Maureen McEwan.

Robinson said measures have been taken in the past to try and lower bacteria levels in the water. She noted both Britannia and Mooney’s Bay Beaches have overhead netting which keeps birds like seagulls away from the water and beach area. Experts looked to see if a similar measure could be implemented at Westboro Beach but it proved to be challenging due to its unique shape and location. 

“A few years ago, the city contracted out an assessment engineering firm for Westboro Beach to see if there were any solutions they could suggest and there was no conclusion that I remember,” Robinson said. “What we found was that one of the deepest points in the Ottawa River was right off the shore of Westboro Beach, so they worked out things like having a curtain to protect the swimming area.”

Robinson said people should listen to the no swim advisories when they are posted because it’s a matter of keeping everyone safe. 

“The risks would be if you had an open wound, it could get infected,” she said. “If you put your head under the water, you could get an ear infection, eye infection or skin infection. If you swallow the water, you could get a gastrointestinal infection.”

Robinson urged people to pick up their garbage and to go to the washroom before entering the water, something which is even more important when you have children. She added that it’s important to change baby diapers away from the beach in a changing room or washroom. 

She also credited the Kitchissippi community members for looking after the beach through a variety of initiatives. 

“Our rivers are important to us and they are great advocates for keeping the rivers clean through the Ottawa River Keeper,” said Robinson. “Westboro Beach has always had a very active community that has done shoreline cleanup and made sure that the beach is a central part of their community. I admire the work that the community does to ensure their swimming is available at Westboro Beach.”

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