Page 5: Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality – Third Edition


Recreational water quality generally falls under provincial and territorial jurisdiction. Responsibility for the safe management of recreational waters can be shared between the provincial or territorial authorities and the beach managers or service providers. The division of duties (e.g. responsibility for monitoring or the communication of results) will vary depending on provincial or territorial policies in place. The Federal-Provincial-Territorial Working Group on Recreational Water Quality was established by the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Health and the Environment to review and evaluate current scientific information on recreational water quality and develop up-to-date guidance. This has resulted in the development of an updated version or Third Edition of the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality, which incorporates current science and outlines a recommended risk management approach. In preparing this document, the Working Group re-evaluated the criteria for existing indicators of recreational water quality and conducted reviews of the literature published on the topic of recreational water quality and human health and safety, including research papers, reports of epidemiological investigations, published texts, disease surveillance reports and guideline documentation developed by other government and multinational organizations worldwide.

The primary goal of the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality is the protection of public health and safety. The document is aimed primarily at responsible authorities and decision-makers. It provides guidance on the factors that can interfere with the safety of recreational waters from a human health perspective. It recommends the adoption of a preventive risk management strategy that focuses on the identification and control of water quality hazards prior to the point of contact with the recreational water user. It also recommends the use of a multi-barrier approach as the most effective means for protecting users from exposure to water quality hazards in recreational waters.

Recreational waters can be considered as any natural fresh, marine or estuarine bodies of water where a significant number of people use the water for recreation. These include human-made constructions using untreated natural waters (e.g. artificial lakes, quarries).

Recreational water activity can be classified as any activity involving intentional or incidental immersion in natural waters. These are further defined (adapted from WHO, 2003a) as follows:

  • Primary contact: Activities in which the whole body or the face and trunk are frequently immersed or the face is frequently wetted by spray, and where it is likely that some water will be swallowed (e.g., swimming, surfing, waterskiing, whitewater canoeing/rafting/kayaking, windsurfing, subsurface diving).
  • Secondary contact: Activities in which only the limbs are regularly wetted and in which greater contact (including swallowing water) is unusual (e.g., rowing, sailing, canoe touring, fishing).

This document does not include treated recreational water facilities (e.g., swimming pools, hot tubs, whirlpool baths, hydrotherapy pools) or tertiary contact uses of water, where no contact with water is expected (e.g., walking along the shore, sunbathing). It does not address water-related injuries such as drowning or diving injuries. It does not address issues specific to particularly sensitive individuals or population groups. Individuals concerned about their health status or the health of vulnerable population groups should consult with their health care provider or regional health unit in order to make an informed decision before engaging in any recreational water activities.

The document is divided into two parts:

  • Part I (Management of Recreational Waters) provides guidance on the management of recreational waters, including approaches for water quality hazard assessment, water quality monitoring and the implementation of preventive or corrective actions.
  • Part II (Guideline Technical Documentation) establishes guideline values and aesthetic objectives and provides related technical and scientific information on the water quality parameters and hazards of importance for Canadian recreational waters.

The guideline values and aesthetic objectives established in this document should not be regarded as legally enforceable standards, except where adopted by the appropriate provincial/territorial or federal agency. Further, the jurisdictional authority may wish to apply more stringent values and objectives as deemed necessary. This document is intended to guide authorities responsible for developing operational standards as part of a comprehensive beach management plan. The Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality may be periodically revised or adjusted as necessary to ensure that they continue to remain protective of the health and safety of all Canadians.

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