It’s April; birds are chirping, lakes are thawing, and the sun’s displaying its first traces of warmth in months. Another sign of summer: beach managers across Canada preparing for the upcoming swim season. Every year, prior to the Canadian swim season- which typically runs from the long weekend in May through Labour Day – it is recommended that beach managers and/or the relevant monitoring bodies conduct Environmental Health and Safety Surveys (EHSS) on beaches.

EHSSs are one of the primary instruments used in protecting public health and safety on beaches and other natural recreational waters.

What is an Environmental Health and Safety Survey?

According to the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality, sanitary surveys are the “blueprint for designing and implementing an effective risk management plan for recreational waters.” (Part 1, Section 2.0 of the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality (2012).)

Part of a multi-barrier approach to recreational water management, EHSSs are a thorough canvassing and assessment of the potential chemical, physical, and biological hazards present at a recreational water use area. Chemical hazards can include industrial discharges, and contamination from watercraft; physical hazards can include litter or poor visibility; biological hazards are the main cause of waterborne illness. Biological hazards include cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins, harmful microorganisms found in sewage such as pathogens, and fecal coliforms, such as E.coli and enterococci. In Canada, sewage and stormwater are by and far the main sources of water pollution. One of the first orders of business when conducting an EHSS is to identify sources of fecal contamination, such as combined sewer outfalls, stormwater outfalls, and outfall pipes from wastewater treatment facilities.

Photo by Tahoepipeclub

The data generated from these surveys is then used to identify the associated risks to public health and safety. Both the data and the assessment report are ultimately used to help beach managers effectively monitor and maintain a beach. Further, it allows them to improve, refine, and target beach management plans over time. The federal recreational water quality guidelines recommend that EHSSs be conducted by the “authority with the most knowledge of the day to day operations of the beach”. This could be the appropriate provincial or territorial authority, the local beach manager, the local public or environmental health department, or informed and engaged community members.

How are EHSSs Conducted?

EHSS are carried out in a three stage process. First, pre-survey preparations are taken to collect any and all relevant existing information about the beach site. This information could include historical trends, known problems and successes, or the results from past surveys. Other factors reviewed in the pre-survey stage include the physical characteristics of the beach, typical recreational uses of the water, and attendance averages, and historical test results.

Next, the on-site visit is conducted. During the site visit water samples are collected, and several other environmental measurements are taken as well. These measurements include:

  • amount of rainfall
  • degree of sunlight and cloud cover
  • temperature (air, water)
  • tidal stage and water level
  • wave height
  • number of swimmers
  • wind direction and speed
  • bird populations (gulls, ducks, geese)
  • turbidity
  • sewage overflows
  • Those conducting EHSSs are encouraged to conduct surveys under both dry and wet conditions, as beach ecosystems can be drastically different following wet weather events.

    Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

    Finally, the third stage is the production of an assessment report based on the data generated in step two. This is done with the goal of identifying priority hazards, the likelihood of public exposure to those hazards, and what the consequences of exposure might be. The report also identifies the priority actions to be taken during the swim season, and the potential barriers that may arise. The report can also make practical recommendations such as specific sampling locations, times, and frequencies.

    Why are EHSSs Important?

    The primary tool used to monitor recreational waters during the swim season is bacterial water testing, namely for E.coli and enterococci. While this is an important part of protecting public health and safety (it’s the information we display on Swim Guide!), FIB test results can only tell us so much about the health of the water. EHSSs are essential in understanding a more complete picture of beach ecosystems, and the potential impact on public health. When conducted regularly at the beginning of each swim season, they allow those managing a beach to take proactive actions to help prevent recreational water illnesses. In the long term, EHSSs serve as the foundation for remediation plans to address the sources of poor water quality, such as sewage and stormwater runoff.

    Call to Action

    When an EHSS is not completed, it puts public health and safety at risk.

    EHSSs supply vital information required to adequately protect public health and safety at the beach. The more data we have the better- so every season an EHSS is conducted, there is an opportunity to generate important health and safety data that is vital in protecting public health in the short term, and addressing sources of water quality contamination in the long term.

    If you want to learn more about the history of EHSSs and water quality at your local swimming spot, reach out to your local beach manager to get more information. Results from EHSSs are publicly accessible data. If your local beach is in Swim Guide, you can find out who manages the beach by checking the source information on the beach page. EHSSs can also be citizen led, and offer a great opportunity for you to become a citizen scientist.

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