Recreational water quality and health: Managing risk

How authorities can identify water quality hazards and protect people from risks.

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Understanding hazards

It's important to understand the potential hazards in recreational water areas. Authorities can help protect people from these hazards with:

Environmental health and safety surveys

These surveys identify sources of fecal contamination and other hazards at the beach and in the surrounding areas. Surveys collect information such as:

This information helps authorities prioritize areas to monitor and identify how to improve water quality and safety.

Microbial source tracking

Microbial source tracking shows the different sources of fecal contamination in a water area, which:

These methods detect markers that tell us about the source of the contaminant. They are more complex than routine monitoring methods and require technical expertise. Authorities usually conduct these studies with scientific institutions.

Monitoring water quality

Routine water quality monitoring helps protect people from water quality hazards.

Pathogenic microorganisms in fecal wastes are the primary hazards for many recreational water areas. It's difficult and expensive to test for these pathogens, so authorities check for other bacteria. The ‘fecal indicator' bacteria that are tested for are E. coli and enterococci. They are mostly harmless, but a few types of these bacteria can make you sick.

The guidelines for Canadian recreational water quality recommend guideline values for these bacteria in recreational waters. When concentrations are above these values, there is an increased risk of getting infected and sick while swimming or playing in the water.

Beach managers and local authorities can use different methods to test the level of E. coli and enterococci in recreational water samples. It can take 18 to 24 hours to receive the results of culture-based methods. These are the most common methods used at Canadian beaches. Newer molecular methods can provide results in a few hours. However, these require specialized scientific equipment and training and aren't yet widely used at Canadian beaches.

Water quality monitoring programs may check for other water quality hazards, such as cyanobacteria blooms.

Learn more about:

Managing beach sands

Managing beach sand is important as:

Beach managers can help keep beaches safe by:

Public notifications

It's important to communicate with the public when managing recreational water quality. Authorities may post public notifications:

These notifications may include:

Some jurisdictions also use beach classification systems to tell the public about the level of risk at a recreational water area. These systems assess the hazards at a beach and then assign it an overall rating. Beaches that use classifications should post these ratings using the same methods as for other notifications.

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