For most people interaction with open water during the winter months is limited to icy thrill of a New Year’s Day Polar Bear plunge. But surfers, as you can imagine, are perpetually the last ones out of the water. And even as we turn on our cars from inside our homes and put on our goose down coats and fur lined boots to fetch the morning paper they’re still out there, playing in the water.

“Hard core” does not come close to describing winter surfers. In fact, while researching this article (second hand) every single reference concluded that winter surfers are lunatics. Magnificent, hearty lunatics.

Photo by Don McCullough

What do you call someone who paddles out, face first, into the wind and churning ice during a winter squall? Beards and eyelashes frozen solid, wetsuits leaking with slush, for fun?

Winter waters have a lot to offer for those willing to brave the freezing surf. So, if you are still out there, here is some winter water quality information to help keep you brave popsicles healthy.


Surfers don’t stay out of the water in the winter. And neither do contaminants. In fact, bacteria and contaminant levels are often higher in our waterways during the winter than they are in the summer due to increased runoff from heavy rains and snow melts.

Runoff is the leading cause of water pollution in urban centres, and snow melts and the spring thaw are when the bulk of contaminants end up in our waterways.

If you are out on the water during the winter, you need to pay very close attention to runoff.

Photo by Tahoepipeclub

Avoid runoff
Runoff from rain and melting snow travels to our waterways through combined sewers, drains, over pavement, and down our rivers and streams. Always avoid surfing and other recreational water activities for at least 72 hours after heavy rain and snowmelt events.

Avoid surfing and other winter water activities near the mouth of outfalls and streams as this is where pollutants will be most highly concentrated.

Listen to combined sewer overflow and contaminated water warnings
Heavy winter rain and snowmelts often overwhelm sewage systems and contaminated waste water ends up in our waterways. Combined sewer overflows alerts, sewage bypass alerts, flood warnings during thaw events, rain advisories, brown water advisories, and all other water related notices should be high on your radar. Stay out of the water to avoid contact with contaminants.

Check water quality reports
Water quality monitoring programs ended in most of North America during the fall so winter surfers are largely on their own when it comes to navigating current water quality.

Winter surfers on the West Coast of the US and Mexico are in luck. Monitoring goes on year round in many regions in California and the Baja Waterkeepers are still monitoring on the Baja peninsula.

Water quality monitoring is also still active through the winter in Georgia, Southern Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, though at a reduced frequency.

Check Swim Guide for the latest water quality information for these regions.

Winter surfers and recreational water users around the Great Lakes, and on the northern coasts of Canada and the US can access historical water quality information through Swim Guide. However, because there is no current water quality information available, recreational water users in these regions need to be particularly attentive to runoff events and to sewage and precipitation warnings.

What’s in the winter runoff?

In the winter sediment, nutrients, and toxic chemicals build up under the snow and ice. There is also a lot of trash that accumulates over the winter. Combined with bacteria and other contaminants in waste water runoff snow melts make for a scary mix that can cause illness and infection in recreational water users.

Photo by Joe Flood

Road salts and chemical de-icers
The use of salt to de-ice our highways is widely recognized as having severe environmental impacts. A shocking volume of sodium and chloride, and chemical de-icers all end up in our waterways each winter, causing enormous ecological harm. In Ontario, for example, recent studies show that approximately 45% of road salts runoff into our water.

The impact of road salts and chemical de-icers on the health of recreational water users is not well researched.

Fertilizers and agricultural runoff from frozen fields
The use of fertilizers on frozen fields is still a common practice. Unfortunately that means that when the snow melts nutrient and bacteria charged runoff ends up in our waterways.

The effects of agricultural runoff on the environment and on human health are so acute that the International Joint Commission strongly recommends banning the use of fertilizer on frozen fields.

Heavy metals
Heavy metals from emissions and vehicle corrosion from traffic and industry accumulate over the winter and are released into our waterways during snow melts and heavy rain events.

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