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article imageLake Ontario Waterkeeper Mark Mattson talks safe swimming Special

By Michael Thomas     Jun 10, 2014 in Environment
Toronto - While many would say they care about the state of their local water bodies when asked, arguably few are more passionate than Mark Mattson, of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. He spoke about Lake Ontario and what can be done to stay safe while swimming.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is a non-profit organization founded in 2001, with a mission statement of "Creating a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future." Mattson, a former environmental lawyer, serves as its founder and president.
At the Walrus Talks Water event a few weeks ago, Mattson spoke a little bit about how pollution has become normalized. In a conversation with Digital Journal, he explained how more safeguards could be put in place to protect beachgoers from swimming in contaminated water.
He points to Toronto's major rainstorm last year, which saw 106 mm of rain fall in four hours, causing massive flooding throughout the city. A side effect of this record-shattering storm was a large overflow of sewage that spilled into lake Ontario.
Mattson and his organization were monitoring the situation and noticed the sewage immediately.
"One billion litres of sewage got discharged," he said. His notifying Toronto's City Hall didn't get a response he had hoped for. "The City of Toronto said I couldn't know that," he said, referring to his estimate of 1 billion litres.
As it turns out, he was right — but the City of Toronto didn't notify the public about the discharge until October of 2013, three months later and after likely millions of dips in contaminated water.
"It's so ridiculous, and for me, maddening," Mattson said. Under current Toronto law, the city doesn't have to notify the public about huge spills like this, and that's why Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is filing a request under the Environmental Bill of Rights to change that. Kingston, Ontario already has such measures in place. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is filing the request this week.
"I can't see any reason why the city wouldn't give notice," he said. However, he said it can be difficult for local governments to shake up the status quo. "They don't like anyone rocking the boat."
In the meantime, the organization has the Waterkeeper Swim Guide, available both online and as an app for iOS and Android devices. It monitors beaches across Canada, the United States and Mexico and updates the status of the beach's water quality every day. Beaches with a green status are safe, while a red status means it's unsafe for swimming.
Mattson explains the criteria for a safe or unsafe designation is the level of bacteria, measured in colony-forming units (CFUs). Ontario has particularly strict rules when it comes to CFUs — water that tests above 100 CFUs is deemed unsafe, in contrast to Canada's national guideline, which is 200 CFUs.
Mattson says that besides checking water quality before you plan a trip to the beach, you should also make an effort to acquaint yourself with your local body of water.
"If you don't get to know the lake, you're going to get disconnected," he said. "Walk around and participate."
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