Lake Ontario Waterkeeper

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is a federally registered charity working to restore swimmability, drinkability and fishability to Lake Ontario.

LOW LogoOur Impact Why We Exist

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper fulfills its mission by educating the public about Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes Basin, and by conducting research and public education activities on behalf of the watershed. Our goal is to restore and protect Lake Ontario’s natural resources, as well as contribute to its aesthetic, and its social, recreational and economic values.

Mark Mattson collects a water sampleOur Story What We Do

History of Organization

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is a Canadian charity working for a day when every person in our watershed can safely touch the water, when the water is pure enough to drink, and when the lake is clean and wild enough that you could toss in a line anywhere and pull out a fish.

In May 2000, seven people died after drinking tap water in the Southwestern Ontario town called Walkerton. Lawyer Mark Mattson and researcher Krystyn Tully emerged from the ensuing inquiry determined that no person should ever become ill after swimming, drinking, or fishing from public waters.

With the support of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his global Waterkeeper network, Mattson and Tully created an independent charity dedicated to a swimmable, drinkable, fishable Lake Ontario.

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is founded on the belief that it is possible to achieve a swimmable, drinkable, fishable world - all we need is commitment to clean water and the right mix of sound environmental policy, transparent and informed decision-making, public education, and community-building programs.

Our programs bring together law, science, culture, and digital media in order to connect and empower people to restore polluted places, protect human health, and promote thriving natural spaces.

Accolades and Accomplishments

Waterkeeper measures our success by the number of issues we have addressed, the amount of money committed to restoration projects, public participation in decision-making processes, and community support for our work.

  • We saved more than 2-million fish

  • Since our launch in 2001, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has worked on over 100 environmental investigations

  • We have published 450 articles to update readers on our work, analyse important trends in environmental law or policy, or share the results of our research

  • In 2013, Waterkeeper Swim Guide helped prevent 5,000 water-related illnesses by providing recent water quality information for the +600,000 Swim Guide users in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and New Zealand.

  • We have helped secure $2-billion in commitments for contaminated site clean-ups around Southern Ontario

  • We defended public participation rights in some of the most important legal cases of our time

  • Through the Clean Water Workshop, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has mentored over 100 law students in environmental law

  • The Swim Drink Fish Community is 650,000 people strong and growing every day


  • Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy Award for Advancing the Environmental Agenda 2004

  • Green Toronto Environmental Award of Excellence - finalist 2010

  • Patagonia Voice your Choice Award 2011

  • Lake Ontario Waterkeeper received the Minister’s Award for Environmental Excellence - honourable mention in 2012

Volunteers conduct beach surveysOur Programs How We Do It

At any given time, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has a range of educational, legal, and research programs underway to engage the community and to promote swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. Our cornerstone programs are the following:

In the environmental world, we are best-known for our field investigations. We identify threats to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water, document the problems, and identify solutions and then initiate legal or educational actions to change polluters’ behaviour. Our investigations bring about improved water quality through direct action (e.g., plugging up a pollution leak) and indirect action (e.g., strengthening a government policy).

On the street, we are best-known for our smartphone app and website project, Swim Guide. Used by 125,000 individuals and 40 nonprofit organizations, the tool helps people find their closest beach and shows them the latest water quality information. Swim Guide prevents thousands of waterborne illnesses each year and leads to improved water quality by identifying pollution hotspots and promoting public awareness of recreational water issues.

Toronto Sewage Investigation

It will take years to fix Toronto’s infrastructure problems. We know that. We also know that public health is at risk in the meantime. In an effort to ensure Toronto’s waterways are swimmable, drinkable, and fishable, Waterkeeper is going to focus more on sewage and stormwater pollution in 2014. This is one of the most serious issues affecting our lake and affecting public health, and we think we can do more.

One of the first steps is better public reporting. We think it’s a shame that you aren’t informed when sewage is bypassed into public waters so that you can take steps to protect your health. Cities like Kingston and Ottawa have starting alerting the public. Toronto, the biggest city in the country, should be able to do the same.

This coming year, we will conduct research and investigation to document the issue and use formal processes to apply for a new policy to ensure Torontonians are informed about major water quality issues such as sewage spills. 

Program Impact

With a new policy in place, Torontonians will be able to take steps to protect their health whenever there is a stormwater or sewage bypass. Sewage pollution takes a toll on the environment and poses a risk to everyone who touches the water. It can infect your eyes, ears, nose, throat. It can give you stomach disorders or rashes. It can even leave you with typhoid fever, hepatitis, or dysentery. With more public awareness and reporting, waterborne illnesses and inconveniences can be significantly reduced while Toronto continues to invest in longer-term infrastructure upgrades.

Toronto's Vital Signs® indicator(s) addressed by Program

"Toronto has over 1,300 km of combined storm/sewage lines (one fifth of the total storm sewers), so that in the event of a major storm, untreated sewage is discharged into the city’s rivers and the harbour. The July 2013 storm temporarily closed 8 of 11 city beachesdue to high E. coli counts."

Swim Guide

Swim Guide is a website and smartphone application showing you where your closest beaches are and telling you which ones have passed water quality tests. Swim Guide is the biggest step forward for beach stewardship in a generation. It creates benchmarking to tell us whether water quality is improving. This enables us to focus on areas that most need our attention.

Swim Guide enables Lake Ontario Waterkeeper to educate thousands of Toronto beach-goers about water issues, double the number of Swim Guide users, create a network of a dozen local businesses who are committed to creating a “Swimmable Toronto”, and create a model program for community beach protection programs.

Funding and Program Partners

Swim Guide has received support from RBC Blue Water Project, McCallum McBride Community Foundation, the Community Foundation for Kingston and Area, and Hertz.

Program Impact

Every person in Toronto should be able to swim at any beach on any day of the summer and never worry about health risks. Swim Guide connects Torontonians to their beaches so that water quality can be improved and protected for generations to come.

Toronto's Vital Signs® indicator(s) addressed by Program

“8 of Toronto’s 12 beaches were open for swimming more than 80% of the time during the summer of 2010.”

“More of Toronto’s beaches are meeting the standards for Blue Flag designation.”

“Most of Toronto’s beaches are still failing to meet provincial standards.”

Watermark Project

Canadians have an undeniable connection to water. Water is part of us and has made us who we are. Water is our heritage, our culture, our most precious resource, and above all, it is our responsibility.  Water shapes us, just as we shape it.

The National Water Centre’s mission is to ensure each Canadian has the opportunity to celebrate and share the story of their connection to water: their Watermark.

The Watermark Project is a new effort by the National Water Centre to collect and share Canadian Watermarks - all 35 million of them. Watermarks will be stored and shared in a digital archive, creating a permanent, searchable, and ever-changing record of the relationship between Canadians and their waters.

To do harm to our waterways is to do harm to ourselves. To protect our waterways is to protect ourselves. By sharing your watermark you are ensuring your waterbody is registered and will be better protected.

Program Impact

Water is part of Canadian culture. But Canada is losing its connection with water. Beach closures, fish species disappearing, and pollution are now tolerated and accepted as the norm. Every watermark gives a waterbody a voice. By sharing, collecting, and archiving Canada's 35 million watermarks, Canada's waterbodies will be better protected.

Toronto's Vital Signs® indicator(s) addressed by Program

“The Watermark Project guides people through the process of discovering and shaping their personal water story so that they can better understand the importance of water in their own lives.”

“This digital archive is the first step in formally chronicling the influence of water in our culture. The watermarks it contains will be of service to communities, academics, researchers, artists, and leaders for generations to come.”

Toronto Recreational Water Users Group

The Toronto Recreational Water Users Group is a Lake Ontario Waterkeeper (LOW) program for recreational water users and groups in the Toronto area. Sewage bypasses occur 2-3 times each month in Toronto. Beyond the city's 11 monitored beaches, water quality information is not easily available. Our goal with the group is to keep Toronto residents up to date on water quality issues that directly affect their health and the health of their waterways. As we share their love of Toronto’s waters, we want to both encourage and protect their enjoyment of our waterways.

We share the information water users need to know, such as current local water quality, extreme weather events, sewage bypasses, and tips on how to protect their health from contaminated water.

We also share information on recreational water events and opportunities in the Toronto area.

The best way to stay on top of all things related to Toronto’s recreational water opportunities and concerns is to follow our Toronto Recreational Water Users on Facebook.

Program Impact

With 2.79 million people (5.5 million in the GTA), Toronto has one of the busiest recreational harbours in North America. But it’s also one of the biggest areas of concern on the Great Lakes. Extreme weather events and sewage bypasses alter water quality to the point where it’s unsafe. By providing water quality information specific to Toronto’s shorelines, recreational water users, can remain healthy and safe.

Toronto's Vital Signs® indicator(s) addressed by Program

“There are only 11 monitored beaches in Toronto.”

“Lake Ontario is the most threatened of the Great Lakes; pollution, habitat destruction, urban development, and overfishing have wiped out 10 species of fish in the last two centuries, resulting in consumption advisories on the fish that remain.”

“The International Joint Commission designated Metro Toronto’s waters as an area of concern; this area overlaps with an “Area of Concern” monitored by the International Joint Commission. “

“Of 11 Beneficial Uses of waterways in this region, 8 are currently “Impaired," including recreational water quality use. This has been consistent since 1987, meaning there has been no progress in addressing impairments to beneficial use.”

Leaking landfill stains the Don RiverWhat You Can Do

Watermark Project

In September 2014, we announced one of our most ambitious projects to date: The Watermark Project.

We believe, “somewhere, some waterbody is part of who you are.

Whether it is Lake Ontario, the Humber River, or a body of water on the other side of the planet, everyone has a unique relationship with water. The journey in discovering your connection with water is the first and most important step in ensuring the long-term protection and preservation of swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.

The Watermark Project will be a web-based archive designed to collect and share people’s personal water stories – what we call, “Watermarks.” This permanent online repository will be a living record of our powerful connections with water.

Through the Watermark Project, everyone will be able to discover their own personal water story, gaining a better understanding of how significant water is to everyday life.

These stories are a valuable part of our culture, heritage, our geography, and our social history and we want to help Canada share each one of them.

Activities a donation will support

The Watermark Project launched in 2016 and so begins our journey to collect one Watermark from each Canadian, ensuring Canada's connection with our waterbodies are archived are protected. Your donation will directly support the Watermark Project’s pilot program: the website’s development and design, and providing Watermark Collectors with support materials and training – helping people across the country find their water story.

Donation impact

When Torontonians discover their Watermarks, they rediscover their unique, personal connection with water. This inspires and engages them in water issues. The process of collecting Watermarks helps to bring together diverse groups of residents, uniting them around the common topic of water. It also creates a powerful repository for basic information about where people swim, drink, and fish in this watershed.

Swim Guide

Swim Guide is a website and a smartphone app that delivers real-time water quality information to Swim Guide users for over 7,000 beaches, lakes, rivers, and swimming holes in Canada, the USA, Mexico, and New Zealand. It’s free, and it will always be free.

The Swim Guide is the only charity app of its kind. Swim Guide solves users’ problems by providing them with beach information before they leave home. It helps families plan memorable, rewarding trips to the beach and prevents thousands of waterborne illnesses each year. It colour-codes each beach to indicate whether water quality meets government standards (green), fails to meet government standards (red), or if data is absent or unreliable (grey).

Swim Guide also addresses environmental problems by creating an easy-to-understand record of where beach water quality problems are happening and inspires the public and government to restore and protect their beaches and swimming holes.

No other service in the world does this.

The water quality information Swim Guide provides to the public is maintained by a dedicated group of affiliates. We are also extremely fortunate to work with a number of affiliates who manage their own water quality monitoring programs. Without their sampling data we would not know the water quality for many swimming sites. It is thanks to our affiliates that we are able to offer current water quality information to the public at thousands of beaches and swimming sites in 4 countries.

Activities a donation will support

LOW is currently working on Swim Guide 3; a new version of the app and website set to launch in 2016. Swim Guide 3 will offer more to our users:

  • more comprehensive water quality and beach information
  • beach trip planning  
  • engaging content for ALL recreational water users
  • direct engagement with users
  • user-to-user engagement opportunities

Swim Guide is already the most popular beach water quality service on the web. Your donation will help us develop Swim Guide 3 and make it the most helpful, most comprehensive, most user-friendly, and most sought-after source of beach information in the world.

Donation impact

Thanks to your support since 2011 Swim Guide has:

  • prevented waterborne illnesses by helping +600,000 people avoid swimming in contaminated water.
  • helped people know more about the threats to their homewaters.
  • provided a platform for 60 affiliated non-profit organizations to share their water quality data, making even more information about current water quality available to the public.
  • encouraged people get back out into the water by making it easier for them to find and reconnect with their favourite swimming holes and beaches.

Toronto Sewage Investigation

It will take years to improve Toronto’s infrastructure problems. In the meantime, public health is at risk. In an effort to ensure the city’s waterways are swimmable, drinkable, and fishable, Waterkeeper has made sewage and stormwater pollution a focus. This is one of the most serious issues affecting our lake and affecting public health, and we think Toronto can do more. One of the first steps is better public reporting.

After the July 2013 flood, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper broke the news that over 1-billion litres of raw sewage was released into Toronto’s waterways and not one public alert went out, leaving recreational water users paddling and fishing in unprecedented levels of bacteria without knowing it.

Over the following months, we gathered sufficient evidence to build a case for recreational water users. In June 2014, we submitted an application to the Ontario government asking them to review Toronto’s failure to alert the public when partially-treated sewage is bypassed into Lake Ontario.

In September 2014, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change’s responded and we were thrilled with their response. The Provincial government agreed to review Toronto’s public reporting practices and possibly expand its review to consider other municipalities within the province with similar issues.

In August 2015, the Ministry of the Environment decided that Torontonians should have more information, including water quality advisories for non-beach areas and real-time bypass updates. 

Waterkeeper's Sewage Case

Activities a donation will support

The Ministry is expected to share their notification system in 2016. In the meantime, your donation will specifically be used to develop research and recommendations to better inform the Ministry of the Environment’s review. Your donation will not be used to support lobbying or advocacy activities.

Donation impact

With a new policy in place, waterborne illnesses and inconveniences can be significantly reduced and easily avoided while Toronto continues to invest in longer-term infrastructure upgrades.


Krystyn Tully
Vice President
Charitable Number: 862622750RR0001

Finance & Governance


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