Worth the risk?

When it comes to swimming in the harbour, safety is relative concept.

The harbour is a sewer. At least, that’s the connection my little brain can’t seem to shake after a lifetime of flushing my unmentionables down the tube.So, swimming there? My involuntary response to the idea of clambering over the rocks and clumsily tipping shoulder-first into the murky depths at Point Pleasant Park’s Black Rock Beach (I’ve never been all that graceful) is complete up-ended horror. But, technically speaking, that’s only a relatively reasonable response, given bacteria levels have dropped so dramatically in some parts of the harbour since the first phase of the $333-million Harbour Solutions Project came on-line in November 2007, that the water falls within acceptable guidelines for What Time Is It, Mr. Shark?Or, at least, until it pours.See, heavy rains over a short period can make the collection chambers overflow, letting our tampon applicators and, um, poop, wash into the harbour anyway (cue theme song from Born Free).That’s what happened over the August long weekend when the city called its masses out for Saturday beach parties at Black Rock and the Dingle, then on Sunday closed up shop because of the risk of elevated bacteria levels from Saturday night’s pelting rain.Technically speaking, does that make the water safe? Or only relatively safe?Relative safety is something I can handle. After all, I drink from the Sackville Booster Pump.The Booster Pump is an artesian well just off the highway in Sackville, New Brunswick. The well---which to learn the mechanics of you’ll have to Google. Suffice it to say it’s clean, ice-cold water that pours day and night, pump-free---has provided Sackville residents with natural drinking water since 1939, free for the lugging and chugging.But not just the Sackville lucky. I’m in the habit of filling up every time I visit Sackville. Or even when I just drive by on the TransCan.Problem? The Booster Pump water is now officially unfit for drinking.I went by for a fill-up the very day Halifax installed its temporary “NO SWIMMING” signs at Black Rock and The Dingle and discovered a sign telling me Health Canada had recently changed the maximum acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water and my precious Booster Juice no longer passed muster (if just by a hair---the Booster Pump’s testing at 11 or 12 micrograms of arsenic per litre; Health Canada only wants people drinking water with fewer than 10).“Meh,” I thought. It’s only relatively dangerous. Glug, glug, glug.And the question presented itself: If I’m drinking arsenic-water, should I really be so freaked out about doing the breaststroke in an erstwhile sewer?I suppose not. But here’s something worth considering:The Booster Pump is free. The Rotary Club and the Town of Sackville installed a little shed over it in 1987, which must need some paint and repairs every once in a while but, otherwise, it’s just self-pumping water spurting up out of the cold, dark earth that costs nada.The Harbour Solutions Project dinged us---for starters---for $333 million.Now, apparently, putting the red light on all that shit gushing out into the harbour is actually cleaning our delightful and deep ice-free port---and cleaning it well indeed, because no one expected to be swimming there so soon.Still, we’re $333 million into this business and when it rains the damn thing doesn’t work. It’s not broken; don’t blame Harbour Solutions. We only ever committed enough money for primary treatment. And that’s what leads us back to swimming. And the fact that cannonballs at Black Rock Beach, underwater handstands at The Dingle and Marco Polo in some secluded harbour swimming nook no one else knows about are the big---maybe the only---concrete signs for so many of us that this monster-sized harbour scrub-down project was worth it.In spots you can tell the harbour is cleaner by looking: Crossing on the ferry, some say, is a little less smelly than it was this time last year. But the solid (pun, sorry) proof the harbour is cleaner is the fact that kids are playing in the water at the Dingle and that right now, some dude in a gold lame budgie smuggler is greased up and doing bicep curls in anticipation of the return of muscle contests to Black Rock Beach.And when the city has to start hammering signs into the ground every time it teems, it becomes clear that we’ve just paid our millions not for a harbour that’s clean, but for one that’s only relatively so.

If you think it's safe to go into the water, email Lezlie Lowe at lezliel@thecoast.ca

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