MONTREAL - As we finally start getting some summery weather, many sun-starved Montrealers begin to daydream of frolicking in the waves along Maine, or diving off a dock into a clear blue lake in the Townships or the Laurentians.
But what about jumping into the St. Lawrence River? We do, after all, live on an island - surrounded by water that for years has been clean enough to swim in. Experts say there are many points around the island where the current is not too strong for swimming, and there is good potential for beaches, docks, boardwalks and other infrastructure that would invite swimmers to take a dip.
Yet there are still only three official beaches on Montreal Island; one at Cap St. Jacques Nature Park, one on Île Bizard (both at the western tip of the island), and the artificial beach on Île Notre Dame.
Environmental and citizens' groups all across the island have been lobbying for more beaches - or at least more access points to the river - for decades.
Two recent announcements have beach lovers hoping that maybe the authorities are starting to listen.
On June 7, the borough council of Rivière des Prairies-Pointe aux Trembles voted to rezone a 1.7-hectare strip of shoreline near the northeastern tip of the island from residential to parkland. The city-owned lot at the end of 94th Ave. in Pointe aux Trembles, a former marina, was at one point slated for condo development, but community groups protested that it has a striking view of Île Ste. Thérèse and is an ideal spot for a beach.
And last month, the Old Port of Montreal Corp. announced that by next summer Old Port visitors will be able to sunbathe and build sand castles on an artificial beach to be installed on the Clock Tower Pier. The current is too strong for swimming at this spot, but some are seeing this project as a step in the right direction.
"Maybe on a nice, hot day, people will go there to sunbathe, and they will look at the beautiful river and start to wonder why they can't swim in it," said Coralie Deny, of the Conseil régional de l'environnement de Montréal, one of the environmental groups pushing for more public water access.
But Deny said the rezoning of the Beaudoin Marina site in Pointe aux Trembles is much more exciting, since it is a real step toward establishing a riverside park with water access. And getting people into the water is one way of ensuring they will pay attention to the quality of water in the St. Lawrence, she said.
"We have turned our backs on the river for too long," Deny said. "Residents need to actually use the river. It's simple; we will protect what we know ... We need to reappropriate (the waterfront) because that means we will pay attention to our waterways."
And there was more encouraging news for the Beaudoin Marina beach project last week. The city of Montreal's water-quality department just released its water-quality report for 2010. The report indicates water quality tested near that site was "almost perfect," and certainly clean enough for swimming.
There has been a marked improvement at this spot since the city finished hooking up 750 homes in Pointe aux Trembles to the watertreatment system, which, until 2009, had been dumping raw sewage into the river.
In fact, Montreal and other levels of government have invested heavily to improve the quality of the water surrounding Montreal in recent years, including $150 million for ozonation technology at the city's water-treatment plant, $35 million to connect those Pointe aux Trembles homes to the sewer system, and $98 million for four storm water run-off retention basins.
Borough Mayor Chantal Rouleau said Montrealers should be allowed to reap the benefits of these investments by swimming and otherwise enjoying the clean water. She is unabashedly enthusiastic about the Pointe aux Trembles beach project.
"Finally we have good water quality, so let's go! Let's get wet!" she said.
Before she was elected mayor of the borough a year ago, Rouleau headed up a group called ZIP Jacques Cartier, the mission of which is to monitor and help protect the St. Lawrence River and its ecosystems. The group is among the many organizations pushing for a beach at the site since 2006.
Now Rouleau says the borough will hold public consultations into exactly what kind of infrastructure to build there and how to finance it.
She cautioned that a sandy beach is not necessarily the only way to facilitate swimming. Two architect's firms have already proposed a couple of ideas for the site. One idea was to install a three-sided removable dock to form a closed swimming area; the other was to carve out a small bay inlet for swimming with a plant filtration system.
But Alan DeSousa, the city's executive committee member responsible for sustainable development, sounded much less keen than Rouleau on the idea. "I'm not against motherhood and apple pie, but I have seen no logistically viable, financially feasible plan for that project," he told The Gazette, adding that the estimates he has heard for the project are "totally out of whack" with the city's ability to pay.
Rouleau, who is a member of the opposition Vision Montreal party, said she was surprised and disappointed to hear DeSousa's comments.
"During the election, all three parties' candidates said they were for giving residents access to the river through this kind of project."
To get up-to-date information on water quality at 116 testing stations around the island, go to www.rsma.qc.ca...Maybe Verdun Will one day get their well deserved Beach:That would be 'good news'