False Creek is ‘definitely swimmable now,’ says health official
Province columnist Ethan Baron
Photograph by: File photo, The Province
Even on the hottest summer day, most locals would be loath to dip a toe into Vancouver’s False Creek for fear of picking up a dreadful infection. But contrary to widespread public opinion, it’s safe to swim in the inlet, a health official says.
“It’s definitely swimmable now,” says Brian Johnston, environmental-health supervisor at the Vancouver Coastal health authority.
Once or twice a week, the health authority samples seawater around Vancouver to count fecal coliforms — bacteria from sewage and animal and human excrement. Ingesting water with high fecal-coliform counts can cause serious gastrointestinal illness. Skin, eye and ear infections can result from contact with highly contaminated seawater.
“The numbers we are getting for False Creek are what we call ‘beach quality,’” Johnston says.
False Creek bears a stigma associated with historical industrial use and sewage contamination that in the summer of 2008 saw dragon boaters and kayakers warned to shower as soon as possible after paddling there, following 2004 and 2005 advisories to avoid ingesting splashed water.
In June 2005, samples revealed a fecal-coliform count in False Creek of 520, more than twice the level of 200 that’s considered safe for swimming. In 2008, a sewage overflow pushed the number to 2,900 at the east end of False Creek, almost three times the 1,000 level considered safe for boating. AIDS victims and others with weakened immune systems were said to be most at risk from water-related infections.
Although the fecal-coliform problem has been largely solved through improvements in sewage-management and education of boaters, False Creek’s reputation remains tarnished, Johnston says.
“It’s an urban myth,” he says. “Our numbers are getting darn good.”
July 15 sampling produced counts of 69, 102 and 184 in west, central and east False Creek, respectively. The higher reading in the east likely resulted from a short-term outflow from a sewage pipe or a boater emptying a wastewater tank, Johnston says.
While live-aboard boaters in False Creek have in the past been vilified as a probable source of fecal contamination in False Creek, Johnston believes they don’t contribute greatly to the problem. Most boats have just one or two people aboard, and many don’t defecate in their onboard toilets, he says.
Heavy rainfall after prolonged dry periods can lead to sewage flows into seawater around Vancouver, Johnston says.
This month’s testing shows all Vancouver beaches are safe for swimming, he says. The highest beach reading — in East Vancouver’s Trout Lake, where bacteria from waterbirds, dogs and people accumulate in an unrefreshed body of water — was well below the unsafe-for-swimming threshold, at 156.
So if you find yourself up False Creek with or without a paddle, or at any of the city’s beaches, fear not the fecal coliform.
But if Johnston is to be believed, you may want to swim away from anyone making suspicious facial expressions: “It’s human nature, you get in the water, you usually go to the bathroom sometimes.”