New program tests whether North Saskatchewan River is clean enough to swim in

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WATCH ABOVE: A new program is aiming to get people more involved with the North Saskatchewan River. But as Julia Wong explains, it comes amid mixed perceptions of whether the river is safe or risky to go in – Aug 12, 2017

A new water monitoring program being run by North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper is aimed at encouraging more Edmontonians to use and be active in the North Saskatchewan River.

The program, which started at the beginning of the July, samples water at the Laurier Boat Launch, the Capilano Boat Launch and the Fort Edmonton Footbridge every Tuesday. The results are then posted to the Riverkeeper website as well as corresponding Twitter accounts.

Hans Asfeldt, who is in charge of the new monitoring program, said there’s a misconception attached to recreationally using in the river.

“One of the key perceptions people have is they see this brown colour and they think, ‘oh the river is so dirty and I’m not going to touch it.’ But in reality, most of that colour comes from the natural sediment that is entirely harmless,” he said.

The organization is trying to change those perceptions and hopes the water monitoring program will help with that.

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“There’s really no reason not to swim in the river if you’re taking the right precautions, if you’re exercising the right discretion about when to swim,” he said.

“We really want to see people embracing the river, swimming in it, boating in it, accessing it for a variety of recreational purposes.”

The program tests E.coli levels at the two boat launches; the results are processed by the organization in-house and verified by a third-party laboratory in Edmonton.

“We want to know how much E.coli, how much other bacteria, how many of these contaminants are in the water and is the level high enough that is poses a risk?” Asfeldt explained.

Federal guidelines recommend an E.coli count less than 400 units per 100 millimetres of fresh water.

Asfeldt said the test results serve as a guideline for Edmontonians.

Test results from North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper as of Tuesday, August 8th, 2017. Courtesy/North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper

“It’s not that it’s entirely safe if we’re below the guidelines or it’s entirely unsafe for above it. It’s a matter of risks levels and that’s really the question you need to ask,” he said, reiterating the data only reflects water quality at the time of the testing.

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Brigitte Posavec was out kayaking near the Laurier Boat Launch on Saturday, but she said she wasn’t interested in swimming in the water.

“I don’t think I would want to swim in it because you always think of it as being dirty,” she said.

But Carl Jensen has had a different experience. The Edmonton man has swam in the river approximately 20 times so far this year. He said he often hears surprise in the voice of others when he tells them he uses the river.

“I’ve invited people to come swimming, but yeah it’s a mixed response,” he said.

“I think there’s a certain stigma with the river, that’s for sure.”

Jensen said he doesn’t have any concerns about the water quality.

“I haven’t felt that way. I don’t think I’ve gotten ill from swimming in the river,” he said, noting he does not often see others swimming.

Keith MacPherson said he used to fish in the river as a child but said there was always the suggestion the water was not clean.

“Even as a kid, we thought it would be too polluted to actually go swimming in,” he said.

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But after hearing reports the river was cleaner than he thought and after time spent kayaking on the water, MacPherson said he realized the North Saskatchewan River is very clean.

“It’s a great river. It’s like an oasis in the middle of the city,” he said, adding greater awareness could help change some perspectives of the river.

“I think the more people realize it’s just a silty river… I think if word gets out, scientifically, look this is a clean river, I think that will go a long way,” he said.

Britt Standen, vice-president of the North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper, said the river’s water quality in Edmonton is good compared to other water areas.

“People don’t realize that because of the headwater, we are the first one, a major city on the water, so we are very lucky to have good water quality,” she said. The other communities upstream include Devon and Drayton Valley.

Asfeldt suggests refraining from swimming if it has been raining in the last 48 hours, since there may potentially be sewer discharge, and suggests swimming upstream, which is where the water is generally cleaner.

He said residents need to consider several things before using the river – physical risks, such as logs, and water quality. He also said users should wear a lifejacket, swim in the river when there is a moderate flow level and always let someone know where they are going.