HALIFAX — A Halifax utility has taken special precautions to keep harbour bacteria levels within swimming guidelines ahead of the annual New Year's Day plunge — although water-quality issues don't seem to faze the brave souls willing to leap into the icy ocean.
Halifax Water shut off its ultra-violet lights — the final component in the sewage and wastewater treatment process — in November at four of its plants to lower energy bills over the winter.
Kenda MacKenzie, the utility's director of regulatory services, said those lights were turned back on Dec. 19, in anticipation of the annual Herring Cove Polar Bear Dip, which usually draws about 200 people to the village on the western side of Halifax's harbour.
But MacKenzie said tests conducted before the lights were turned back on showed bacteria levels were within swimming guidelines, and tests conducted Thursday said the same.
She said the move was more about giving the public and polar bear swimmers extra reassurance that it is safe to plunge into the harbour Sunday.
"It's just about ensuring the public that measures are being taken to make sure that it's the safest it could be for swimming and human contact, knowing that there is an event going on," said MacKenzie, adding it will cost about $14,000 to turn the lights back on for two weeks.
"There was a chance it would be OK without the lights going back on, but this just removes any concern."
This is the 23rd year of the Herring Cove Polar Bear Dip — in which people young and old jump two-by-two from a wharf.
Polar bear dip organizer Sarah O'Brien said she wasn't aware of the special precautions being taken by Halifax Water. But even if bacteria levels were below swimming guidelines, she doesn't think that would have deterred participants.
"I don't think people even think about that," said O'Brien in a phone interview Friday. "It's just one dunk into the water. If you're prepared to jump into the harbour you're going to do it no matter what."
The UV lights disinfect the sewage at the final stage of treatment. MacKenzie likened it to tanning-bed bulbs in a channel that the water passes through.
The process is currently being carried out at the Halifax, Dartmouth, Eastern Passage and Herring Cove wastewater treatment facilities, between May 1 and October 31.
The pilot project of turning off the UV lights is in its second year. Between November 2015 and April 2016, ecal coliform, E. coli and Enterococcus levels were within safe swimming limits with the exception of four samples of Enterococcus.
MacKenzie said one of the reasons for the pilot project is to test whether the lights need to be on at all during the winter.
"We were kind of surprised to see that with the lights off, we didn't go above the swimming guidelines," said MacKenzie of last year's testing.
"It could be that because of the colder temperature of the water and other factors, the bacteria can't survive. Those are the types of things that we're trying to gather information on through the pilot program."
O'Brien said she's expecting upwards of 250 people at the saltwater polar bear swim Sunday. Donations collected will go to Feed Nova Scotia — a local food bank.
Aly Thomson, The Canadian Press