Is the Gorge actually safe for swimming?

By Rob Wipond, September 2012

Safety pronouncements for the waterway relate strictly to fecal coliform—but what about industrial chemicals?

My sense of place spins like I’m in a celebratory party version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Wow, I’m splashing in a Bermuda bay amidst California beach boys and Hawaiian dancing girls! No, my mind reminds me as I flutter about in warm ocean waters below a fervent August sun: This is downtown Victoria, British Columbia, and I just dove into the Gorge inlet. 

It shouldn’t be so unexpected and disorienting. The Gorge’s shallow waters can take two months to turn over during dry summers, and so hover above a balmy 20 degrees celsius. But decades of unregulated pollution from industrial, sewage, boating, and urban sources transformed the once-popular swimming area into a liquid dump peppered with designated contaminated sites concentrated with lead, mercury, hydrocarbons, PCBs and more. 

However, beginning in the ’90s as a volunteer effort, the Veins of Life Watershed Society helped spearhead a cleanup that soon drew in governments, businesses, universities, the military, professional scuba divers and countless others. They pulled out everything from shopping carts to cars, educated nearby neighbours about better habits with hazardous household chemicals, and helped prompt the ongoing remediation project in Rock Bay. Reducing toxic urban run-off during our rainy winters remains a challenge and, moving ahead, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic has proposed creating a conservation authority to oversee the entire waterway. 

But as eel grass, oysters, salmon and trout return, many feel it’s past time for human swimmers to re-inhabit the Gorge, too. So four community associations recently decided to promote the Gorge Swimfest, following public pronouncements from the Vancouver Island Health Authority that the Gorge is safe for swimming.

But many remain skeptical. When I describe my swim online, the emotional tides quickly turn on me. Friends’ replies include comments like, “Ew. Really?”, “…black sludge full of petro chemicals and heavy metals…”, and “I love you, but you are insane.” The Swimfest is days away, and yet I find no adequate responses from organizers or in media coverage. 

I contact VIHA and, shockingly, discover their safety pronouncements actually relate strictly to fecal coliform associated with sewage contamination. “The only testing we do is for bacteria,” says Erwin Dyck, VIHA’s supervisor of environmental health officers. 

In light of the known contaminated sites and toxic urban run-off, wouldn’t it be prudent to be testing for levels of certain dangerous chemicals, too?

“We’ve not been informed that it’s a concern,” responds Dyck. “If there was some contamination of the Gorge waterway…we would expect that the Ministry of Environment would let us know, or the Harbour Authority, or something.”

A BC Ministry of Environment spokesperson, though, acknowledges having records of contaminated sites, but declines via email to declare Gorge toxin levels safe for swimming. “Unfortunately we cannot make a confirmed comment on that because it is not our jurisdiction. You would have to contact the Vancouver Island Health Authority to confirm.”

Harbour Master Dave Featherby and Rebecca Jenz of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority say they don’t test the water for contaminants, either. “The CRD would be the people I would direct you to,” says Jenz.

CRD Supervisor of Stormwater, Harbours and Watersheds Program Dale Green says they do test for some common toxic metals and hydrocarbons. However, he hastily adds, “When you talk about the swimming, there are two reasons why our sampling is not good. Well, there’s actually probably more than two.”

Green explains that the CRD is only taking samples right at storm drain outfalls, not in the waterway, and only searching for specific contaminants commonly associated with stormwater problems like sewage spills and road run-off. The data helps municipal governments identify and reduce land-based pollution sources that could negatively affect marine life.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘safety,’” says Green. “We have guidelines that we use that sort of indicate problems or no problems…There are no hard and fast numbers for good or bad.” So is the Gorge safe for swimming or not? “I wouldn’t comment either way,” replies Green. 

Green clarifies one key conundrum. Gorge waters (north of the Selkirk Trestle) haven't been extensively studied, while Transport Canada’s definitive studies examining Harbour contamination (south of the Trestle) have focused on shoreline and underwater floor sediment. “There’s no connection or study then done to say, is that stuff leaching back into the water or is it all happily staying down there?…I couldn’t tell you what’s on the top based on knowing what’s on the bottom.” 

Yet that’s not just a speculative concern. In March’s Focus, David Broadland revealed the City of Victoria ignored Transport Canada’s instructions to install sediment curtains during bridge construction dredging to prevent sediment toxins spreading through the waterway. Are those toxins still floating around? 

Transport Canada communications rep Sau Sau Liu declines to let me interview anyone, and states in an email they have no jurisdiction in the Gorge. “Perhaps you can contact the Province of BC,” she writes. 

With regard to Harbour contaminants, Transport Canada has produced some 60 volumes of reports since 2000 as part of its divestiture of responsibilities. In a 2007 update covering health risks, amidst hundreds of pages I discover a single sentence addressing swimming: “Estimation of [human health risk] exposures [to contaminants] from the water column was not considered to be necessary since the chemical analysis indicated that water concentrations were well below BC [Contaminated Sites Regulation] drinking water standards and Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines.”

It sounds encouraging to me, but also flippant: “It’s gotta be safe, cause you can drink the stuff!” Other aspects of the report similarly have the whiff of political contamination, like the authors’ decision to measure carcinogen exposure risks for adults but not children. 

I soon discover the report’s proclamation doesn’t wash with Health Canada. Their Guidelines for Recreational Water Quality cite a study that found skin absorption rates for many toxic organic compounds in water to be “remarkably high”—in some cases, skin absorption while swimming will draw in nine times the toxin amounts as drinking the water directly will, the scientists wrote. Consequently, Health Canada’s Guidelines conclude that, “there are some chemical contaminants that could be a cause for concern in recreational waters. Given the paucity of information on the type of chemical, the effective concentration, and the effects, it is difficult to set guidelines at the present time.”

Swimfest organizers are already planning next year’s event. When I share some of my findings, organizer Jack Meredith proposes a logical course of action. “Let’s get all the various stakeholders at the table and just say, what should we be doing, what level of due diligence should we as a society have if we are going to put in the infrastructure and encourage people to be [swimming in the Gorge],” suggests Meredith. “How much and what kind of testing is appropriate?”

Hundreds attend the Swimfest. As I sit on the rocks at Saanich’s Curtis Point, I notice some people simply come and leave, just checking things out. Even many would-be swimmers appear trepidatious, as if gaining reassurance from studying others going into the water first. 

One woman tells me she’s never swum here before. “I thought it was too polluted.” Swirling ripples retreat from her body as she lets go of land and slips in up to her neck. She asks my friend to take her photo as she treads water, smiling with cautious joy, like a survivor near the end of a Hitchcock film.

Rob Wipond suggests encouraging VIHA to begin more comprehensive water quality testing in the Gorge.