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An unseasonably hot, drought-fuelled summer may be wreaking havoc for farmers and firefighters, but it’s been a godsend for water quality in the Ottawa River.
A summer almost entirely devoid of rainfall means E-coli levels are drastically lower than they were last year.
To get a snapshot of the health of the Ottawa River, the Sun took water samples at nine key locations along the the integral waterway.
The samples, taken in early June from Arnprior in the west to Rockland/Clarence in the east, show that while there are higher levels of E-coli near municipal water treatment plants, none of the levels are harmful to people.
The highest levels of E-coli sampled by the Sun were near the Robert O. Pickard Environmental Centre, which treats Ottawa’s wastewater on 160 acres of land just off the Rockcliffe Parkway.
Yet those levels only reached 60 E-coli units per 100 ml, less than the 100 units per 100 ml needed to close beaches, ranking it as “good.”
Arnprior’s water treatment plant also scored high among the samples, reaching 52 E-coli units.
The low levels can be attributed to a variety of factors. Ottawa’s River Action Plan is having a considerable impact, but rainfall still plays the most crucial role.
Rain water carries bird and animal feces to the water, funnels E-coli-saturated fertilizer from farmer’s crops into the river, and sets off overflows at combined sewer runoffs.
“The (E-coli) levels tend to be higher after a rainstorm when things get washed in, that’s when you have to close the beaches because the levels are too high,” explains water specialist Dr. Roberto Narbaitz.
Consider that last year, all of Ottawa’s beaches were only open for 19 days out of 65. Already this year, beaches have been open for 32 days.
In addition, the highest E-coli level recorded this year was at Mooney’s Bay on July 12 at 243 E-coli units, only the season’s second beach closure. By this time last year, there were already 48 beach closures, five of which clocked in at 1,000 E-coli units, the maximum level Public Health officials record.
E-coli levels have been nearly non-existent at city’s beaches, says Public Health inspector Martha Robinson, who takes daily water samples.
“This year we just haven’t had any rainfall, so there’s not a lot of extra pollutants continually washed into the rivers,” says Robinson.
Geese are also still nesting and won’t flock down to the water to graze until mid-August, which has a substantial impact on E-coli levels.