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How often do you visit the river, lake, or ocean nearest to your house?

Do you go swimming in it? Canoeing? Fishing? Or do you only admire its beauty from a distance?

How clean do you think the waterbody is? Is this something that you think about at all?

The answers to these questions may be more important and more connected than you realize.

A 2018 study by the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism found a link between people’s perceptions of a waterbody’s water quality and their use (or lack thereof) of that waterbody for recreation.

Photo by Uriel Castellanos

It appears that water quality perception is in the eye of the beholder. It also appears that ‘beholders’ who use the water for certain activities (such as fishing, bird watching, and hiking) are more concerned about how clean it is.

The study found that recreational water users feel positively about the quality of the water, and have higher levels of concern about its health. Those that did not participate in water recreation felt less positively about it, and had lower levels of concern about its health.

Who has access to water recreation?

The study further concluded that other factors, like age, education, gender, race, religion, and income influence how people perceive the water even more than recreation. For example, those of higher socio-economic status and of caucasian descent may have better access to waterbodies as well as more leisure time to recreate in them.

Photo by Giorgio Trovato

Likewise, certain factors (such as being a racial minority or being from a low-income household) also have implications for someone’s vulnerability and exposure to health risks associated with poor water quality. Such groups can also face barriers to water recreation. Finding transportation to waterbodies and having leisure time for water recreation can be more difficult for certain individuals.

In Ontario, Ontario Parks’ NatureLink program has partnered with Parkbus to connect newcomers to Canada with the outdoors. Trails Youth Initiatives, provides outdoor experiential education to vulnerable youth.

Meanwhile, the Unlikely Hikers movement is working towards diversity, representation, community, and body liberation outdoors on an international scale.

Photo by Caitlin White

When we don’t visit and use our waterbodies, we become disconnected from them.

If we aren’t getting our toes wet every once in a while, we can become completely unaware of the threats to water quality that are facing our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Recreational water users are often some of the first people to recognize issues affecting water. This is because they are actually present to detect changes in the health of the water.

Photo by Annie Spratt

Unfortunately, studies show that many of us are spending less time in the water than we used to.

How can we form perceptions of water quality when we’re visiting our waters less and less?

The 2019 Outdoor Participation Report found that almost half of Americans don’t participate in outdoor recreation. This finding represents a growing trend towards indoor (or no) physical activity. The report notes that in 2018, Americans ventured out on one billion fewer outdoor excursions than they did only ten years earlier.

Photo by Mark Faviell

Perhaps even more worrisome, kids got outside for 15% fewer outings per year in 2018 than they did in 2012.

It’s these sorts of statistics that moved author Richard Louv to coin the term ‘nature deficit disorder.’ The term refers to the mental and physical costs of our increasing disconnection from nature.

Nature deficit disorder is especially an issue for children. The deficit is said to cause diminished senses, trouble focusing, obesity, increasing rates of illness, as well as poor ecological literacy and decreasing concern for nature.

Photo by Leo Rivas

Recreating outdoors and in the water is important not only for our physical and mental health, but also for our natural world. The first step to caring about the health of our waters is forging a connection with them.

Swimming, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and taking part in any kind of recreational activity that will get you to the water is a great place to start. But how do we know where the water quality is suitable for recreation?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Swim Guide was created to answer the question, “Can I swim here?”

The Swim Guide app and website provide up-to-date and reliable water quality data so that people can know where they can swim without risking contracting a waterborne illness and becoming sick.

Always check the water quality data before you head to the water. Once you know that your favourite waterbody has passed water quality testing, you can enjoy the water and form your positive water quality perception first-hand.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

And if the water isn’t clean enough to swim in, learn why. Educate yourself about the issues facing your favourite waterbody, and find out what you can do to help.

Meet Gassy, our new pollution photo submission tool

If you go to the water and see things like sewage spills or plastic debris, take a photo. Taking photos is a key step in documenting pollution in our waterbodies. Report what you see in the water to Gassy, our little AI water monster. Gassy finds patterns and detects trash or sewage pollution in your photos. When you submit photos to Gassy, you become a citizen scientist by helping to build a database of vital water health information.

Photo by Swim Drink Fish

If you care about your nearby waterbodies, find your local Waterkeeper and get involved. You can also volunteer for a shoreline cleanup and learn what you can do in your own home to reduce water pollution.

Check out our other articles on how you can cut down on water pollution:

Five easy things you can do at home to make your local water cleaner
Five more easy things you can do at home to make your local waters cleaner

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