This time last year on a hot day the smell of the Halifax waterfront was enough to make your stomach turn. But in a couple of weeks, parts of the former sewage swamp will be open for swimming and those beaches could turn into Halifax hot spots.
Though it's hard to shake memories of tampon applicators and Halifax tube-fish (floating condoms), both Black Rock Beach off Point Pleasant Park and Sir Sanford Fleming Park Beach near the Dingle in the North West Arm will be open with lifeguard service starting Natal Day.
The difference? Last year, millions of litres of raw sewage were dumped every day directly into the harbour. This year, the Harbour Solutions Project is coming on line. The first sewage treatment plant, on the Halifax side of the harbour, came into full operation in February. A Dartmouth plant is currently being calibrated, and is expected to become fully operational in coming months.
Although not meeting even middling "secondary treatment" standards proscribed by federal law, the treatment plants sift out solids and disinfect the waste water with ultraviolet light. Which is enough, miraculously, that parts of the harbour were recently deemed safe for swimming by mayor Peter Kelly. (Pressed by reporters, Kelly declined to don Speedos and take the plunge himself.)
Haligonians who frequent the waterfront have probably noticed cloudy waters have cleared and "floatables" (feces and toilet paper) are fewer. Still, during heavy rains only the biggest chunks of sewage are screened and sent for treatment, while leftovers overflow into the harbour as before, untreated.
Jennifer Graham can't help but wonder if the city is jumping the gun by opening up the waters to the public.
"It is something we should aspire to, to have swimmable water in Halifax Harbour; I'm wondering if we really do have enough data to be sure that this water is safe for swimming at the moment," says Graham, the coastal issues coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre. "I'm delighted that the water quality tests are coming out clean, but what's the rush? Monitoring water quality isn't something you just do for one year; it's a long-term commitment."
Clean water in the harbour means great things for the waterfront, property values and recreation in the city. But Graham questions how detailed the water quality tests are.
"We're not looking at dissolved pharmaceuticals in water. We don't really test many chemical parameters, which I would worry about in a very industrialized harbour like the Halifax harbour," she says.
"Updating our water quality standards and making sure we have the capacity and resources to do this kind of testing---it's certainly something we should be doing, not just in HRM but around the province."
Graham's concern about testing water quality brings up another issue: As swimmers debate whether to dip into the harbour, what about the heavily populated lakes we're also swimming in?
Already this summer, elevated E. coli levels have temporarily closed both Birch Cove Beach in Dartmouth and Springfield Lake Beach in Upper Sackville.
Halifax's supervised swimming holes are tested weekly for fecal coliform levels and closures are posted on HRM's website (halifax.ca/recreation/beaches), on HRM's beach line (490-5458) and at the beach/lake itself.
But Graham wants more habitat information made public---not only for safety's sake, but also for environmental education. She mentions beaches where signage posts water quality at all times, whether bad or good.
Graham cites Blue Flag, an international organization dedicated to beach preservation, as a model for setting beach quality standards and informing the public.
Under Blue Flag procedures, if a beach flies a blue flag it has met 27 criteria, including safety and services, water quality and environmental education and management.
While the EAC has hired a beach researcher to look at problem areas and good beach management in Nova Scotia, Graham says making lots of information about our water systems available to swimmers---whether they're venturing into the harbour or not--- would be a step in the right direction.
"I think a good comprehensive system would be a good investment not only for public safety, but for tourism as well." a