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Go Jump in a Lake

Waterkeeper Alliance

By Krystyn Tully

So, seven years ago, a team of staff and volunteers at Lake Ontario Waterkeeper set out to answer the question, "Is it safe to swim in Lake Ontario?" The first thing we discovered was that reliable facts and figures about beach water quality were hard to come by. So we started compiling our own.

For five years, we tracked which beaches were open and posted them on scraps of paper and clunky spreadsheets and generated an annual report for the Lake Ontario watershed. Each year we expanded our beach report to include more beaches in more parts of Southern Ontario and upstate New York.

It was interesting for us as researchers but it wasn’t very helpful to beach-goers. What we really needed was some tool that would tell you where the beaches are and which ones are safe for swimming right now.

Two years ago, we decided to make that tool. First, we built a Swim Guide engine so that every day we could phone or visit the websites of scores of beach monitoring agencies and enter the information into our custom-built database.

Seven years and thousands of hours after we first posed the question of Lake Ontario being safe to swim in, we could finally crunch the numbers and answer: “Yes, usually.”

Of course, answering that question was only step one. Our next challenge was figuring out how to give people easy-to-read beach quality information whenever they wanted it, wherever they wanted it.

That was no easy task. This summer, for example, we checked-in with about 70 different sources that monitor about 800 beaches every day. We recorded about 70,000 different points of data in the Swim Guide database. Then we converted that information into a format that meant something to potential beachgoers: here is where it is safe to swim, and this is how you get there.

The Swim Guide is a free mobile application for smartphones or you can visit the website at www.theswimguide.org. This free app helps people find the closest beaches, know at a glance which ones are safe for swimming and share their love of beaches with their friends.

This last part—sharing a love of beaches—is really important to us. We can’t restore and protect the world’s greatest beaches without you and your friends.

In the spirit of sharing, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper went and added all of the beaches on the Great Lakes to Swim Guide because we know that people who live near one Great Lake also love to visit parks and beaches in different watersheds.

We also invited other Waterkeeper organizations to join the Swim Guide team. Fraser Riverkeeper now tracks beaches in the Vancouver area. North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper tracks beaches in the Edmonton area. Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper does the same for beaches in the Miami area.

Swim Guide includes original descriptions and photographs of hundreds of beaches in Ontario, British Columbia, New York State, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Alberta and the Miami area. “In a few years, we hope there’s a Swim Guide in every major beach community in North America,” says Mark Mattson, who heads Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, as he shows off the app.

It shows you where the beaches closest to you are, gives you real-time status updates, and lets you compare your local beach to other beaches in Canada and the United States. “We made the Swim Guide because safe recreational water contact is one of the hallmarks of an environmentally strong community,” says Mattson. “Swimming is an important environmental, cultural and economic issue—that’s why every important environmental law in North America tries to protect beaches.”

The Swim Guide is fun and easy to use, but the need for clean beaches is no light matter to Lake Ontario Waterkeeper or to the nearly 200 other Waterkeeper organizations around the world. Clean beaches are not luxuries. They satisfy some very basic, fundamental needs in our communities. Beaches provide a free, accessible respite for people on hot days. They provide gathering places for families and friends. They are immensely valuable natural assets for local economies.

Beaches are also excellent indicators of how our democratic institutions are holding up. If you cannot safely swim in your area, chances are that someone is breaking the rules. Chances are that bad decisions were made in the past, meaning good decisions need to be made in the future.

In its simplest form, a beach is a strip of shoreline accessible to the general public that facilitates access to a body of water which every one of us has the right to use and enjoy. When pollution claims a beach, it makes it unavailable to you for safe enjoyment, and your beach is lost. Taken away.

The Swim Guide helps to win back those lost beaches by highlighting the ones with chronic pollution problems and comparing one region to another. The Swim Guide also helps to protect and celebrate the clean beaches, the ones waiting for you next summer.

Reprinted with permission from Waterkeeper Magazine. To read the winter issue of the Waterkeeper Magazine, click here.

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