'The program engages people in the community. It raises public confidence in knowing that you’re coming back to a marina or a beach where they maintain safe standards.'

— Sarah Winterton, director of Strategic Partnerships for Environmental Defence

Eight down, three more to go:
Toronto's hard work pays off with Blue Flag beach honours

When it comes to environmentally friendly beaches, the City of Toronto is tops in Ontario, with eight of its 11 swimming beaches earning the right to trumpet their good environmental practices under the internationally recognized Blue Flag program.  

In all, 16 beaches will fly the coveted Blue Flag in Ontario this summer.  

“These awards are the result of the great work done by beach operators and countless community groups who recognize the importance of protecting their beach and marina,” said Sarah Winterton, director of strategic partnerships for Environmental Defence, the organization that runs the Blue Flag program in Canada. “Everyone involved in the Blue Flag program really deserves recognition for their efforts and we congratulate them all on their achievement.”  

The 16 beaches in Ontario with Blue Flag eco-status will be joined by three marinas, which won that right for a third straight year. The Lake Huron marinas — Bluewater Marina in Bayfield, Grand Bend Marina and Port Franks Marina  — were the first in North America to earn the right to fly a Blue Flag, emblematic of their commitment to maintaining high environmental standards.  

Winterton says the introduction of the Copenhagen-based Blue Flag program to Canada is helping to “get people back to the waterfront.”  

When it comes to beaches, a favourite summer hangout for families, Toronto is the undisputed leader, with eight of its Lake Ontario beaches now certified to fly the Blue Flag. Bluffer’s Beach in Scarborough is the newest flying the Blue Flag on Lake Ontario in Toronto, joining Kew-Balmy, Woodbine, Cherry, Ward’s Island, Centre Island, Gibraltar Point and Hanlan’s Point beaches.  

Lake Huron beaches that have earned their Blue Flag status are: Grand Bend Beach in Lambton Shores, Bayfield Main Beach in Bluewater, Kincardine’s Station Beach and Sauble Beach in the Town of South Bruce Peninsula.  

Port Stanley Main Beach in Central Elgin is the only beach on Lake Erie to win Blue Flag status, returning for a second year.  

On Georgian Bay, beaches earning Blue Flag status are: Little River Beach Park and Northwinds Beach Park in the Town of the Blue Mountains, and Wasaga Beach Provincial Park. 

Hard work, dedication and lots of money

The right to fly a Blue Flag has long been a coveted one in Europe, where the program has been operating for more than two decades. Beaches in Toronto became the first in Canada to be awarded Blue Flags in 2005.  

Winterton says a key benefit of the program is the way it raises the public’s confidence in the quality of Ontario’s water. “For example, Lake Ontario gained a reputation in the past for being polluted, not good for swimming,” she tells When the first batch of Toronto beaches proved they could meet Blue Flag standards, that went a long way toward increasing the public’s trust. “People are concerned about water quality when they look for a place to swim. The program is getting people back to the waterfront.”  

Obtaining — and maintaining — Blue Flag status is hard work and demands a huge commitment, often with a hefty price tag. Cleaning up Lake Ontario and making Toronto’s beaches more swimmable has been a political priority as part of a “clean, green and beautiful” waterfront vision for many years, with the city preparing for Blue Flag certification back in 2003.  

Since Toronto won its first eco stripes two years later, several beach improvements have been carried out, including a dune and wetland system created at Bluffer’s Park to intercept and divert the flow of intermittent streams. The move saw a dramatic improvement in beach water quality, which is one of the criteria needed for Blue Flag certification.  

Among the more recent beach-related programs is a three-year pilot project approved in 2009 at Sunnyside Beach that saw a portion of the lake’s swimming area enclosed, and moves taken to “provide water that meets Ontario’s recreational water quality standard.” The cost? A whopping $1 million.  

Sunnyside, along with the Rouge and Marie Curtis Park East beaches — all located at the mouth of a river — are often posted against swimming due to high levels of E. coli bacteria, and are the last of Toronto’s beaches without a Blue Flag eco-label. The popular beach will not be enclosed this year, however, as the pilot project did not have the hoped-for results.

According to the 2009 Toronto Beaches Plan, river discharges “are the most significant source of pollution” at these three beaches. Solving the problem will require “renovating” the Humber, Etobicoke Creek and Rouge River watersheds by eliminating combined-sewer overflows and controlling and treating all storm runoff. Sewer outflow protection work has been carried out at Sunnyside, with holding cells in the adjacent park designed to keep polluted runoff out of the lake.

Unfortunately, solving the water quality problems at the three river-impacted swimming beaches will take longer than 25 years, the report says. And it won’t be cheap, as evidenced by the $1-million cost to enclose part of the beach at Sunnyside, a move that was termed an interim solution and that in the end was cut short due to poor results.

Moving beaches away from pollution

As for Marie Curtis Park East Beach, whose water quality is affected by pollution from Etobicoke Creek, proposed solutions include either deflecting the creek’s discharge away from the beach, or relocating the beach to the west side of the creek or to Colonel Samuel Smith Park, about three kilometres to the east. The proposed fix for Rouge Beach, which is affected by pollution from the Rouge River and tails off quickly to deep water, is to move it about 0.75 kilometres to the west as part of the Port Union waterfront development.  

Along with improvements in water quality, officials hope the Blue Flag program can help change attitudes. They want people to think “clean and green” when referring to Toronto’s waterfront. But despite the clean bills of health at eight of 11 urban beaches, many people still refuse to believe that Lake Ontario is safe to swim in, says James Dann, the city's waterfront parks manager.

"We want to let people know that there are clean, accessible beaches just a transit ride away that are waiting for them," he tells

Why won't many locals swim in Lake Ontario?

Dann remembers paddling around in the lake 20 years ago and having to "peroxide my ears to avoid infection" due to pollution. "We want people to know that the lake has gotten cleaner. And it's not just the water, it's the beaches themselves and the washroom facilities."

Along with turning locals on to city beaches, the Blue Flag program also plays a role in the city's tourism industry, says Dann. For example, visitors heading to Toronto Island specifically ask about the quality of the beaches.

While Toronto is unlikely to have all 11 of its swimming beaches flying the Blue Flag in the near future, Dann says the Rouge beach could well be the next one ready to take on the certification process. In the meantime, he says, the city will work hard to keep the flags flying at its eight certified beaches by making grooming and washroom maintenance a priority. As for water quality, a joint effort with Toronto Water, the health unit and others, the water will continue to be tested daily, something that is usually carried out weekly in other municipalities.

Blue Flag is operated worldwide by the non-profit Foundation for Environmental Education. In Canada, the program is administered by the Toronto-based Environmental Defence organization.  

“The program engages people in the community,” says Winterton. “It raises public confidence in knowing that you’re coming back to a marina or a beach where they maintain safe standards.”  

A municipality interested in having a beach designated Blue Flag must apply to Environmental Defence, which will grant it “candidate” status, the first step to certification. For a marina, it is the operator, be it a private individual or a municipality, that must apply. A Blue Flag is awarded for the season only, and even during the course of the season, it can be withdrawn if a problem is detected during regular monitoring.  

With the public becoming more aware of the meaning of those blue flags, more municipalities are working to earn their environmental star. Professor’s Lake Park in Brampton, Canatara Park on Lake Huron in Sarnia and Rotary Cove Beach on Lake Huron in Goderich are all candidates working toward certification under the Blue Flag program. If they meet the program’s stringent requirements — beaches are rated on 27 criteria including water quality, environmental education and management, and safety and services — they too will soon be flying the Blue Flag. — June 2011