More than 205 billion litres of raw sewage and untreated waste water spewed into Canada's rivers and oceans last year, CBC News has learned, despite federal regulations introduced in 2012 to try to solve the problem.

Toilet paper washes up on beaches near small towns in Newfoundland and Labrador. In Victoria, B.C., divers report sick kelp and polluted scallops near sewage discharge pipes.

In fact, the amount of untreated waste water, which includes raw sewage and rain and snow runoff, that flowed into Canadian rivers and oceans last year would fill 82,255 Olympic-size swimming pools — an increase of 1.9 per cent over 2014.

The volume was supposed to drop as cities and towns move to comply with the standards the Conservative government adopted four years ago.

Montreal sewage dump

Debris, including a tampon applicator and a syringe, lie along the shore of the St. Lawrence River in Montreal in this photo from last year. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The rules require municipalities to do secondary treatment to remove not just solid waste but also dissolved organic material. The worst offenders have until 2020 to comply. Municipalities that were doing some water treatment but didn't meet the new standards, have until 2030 or 2040.

Municipalities that don't meet the deadlines face the prospect of charges and stiff fines.

'Alarming' numbers

But figures obtained from Environment Canada show that after a small improvement between 2013 and 2014, the amount of untreated waste water actually increased last year.

Elaine MacDonald, an environmental engineer with Ecojustice, said a lack of funding and the long timeline for compliance are contributing to the problem.

"These numbers are still really alarming. There's obviously a lot of untreated waste water that's still entering the environment."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said it will get worse as climate change brings more strong rainfalls that overtax older combined stormwater and sanitary sewage systems.

"Our aging waste water infrastructure was designed for a different climate, and for many municipalities across Canada, when you have a deluge rain event your sewage treatment bypasses the sewage plant and goes right downstream."

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Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says the problem of raw sewage spewing into rivers and oceans could get worse as climate change causes more heavy rainfalls. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said untreated waste water is one of the largest sources of pollution in Canadian rivers and oceans.

"My answer is that it's not OK," said McKenna, whose mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau includes protecting freshwater resources and investing in waste water treatment.

"The regulations were brought in by the previous government. There weren't the investments required for municipalities to update their waste water systems. So that's why we are seeing these dumps."

The Liberal government has already earmarked money for sewage treatment systems and McKenna said it's prepared to spend more.

"Our government has committed to investing $2 billion specifically for waste water upgrades. We have already seen 500 projects and that's just Phase 1 of our infrastructure plan."

'Drop in the bucket'

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) welcomes the funding but says it's a drop in the bucket compared with the $18 billion it estimates it will take to comply with the federal standards.

"For our small province of 500,000 people, it is estimated to cost $500 million," said Karen Oldford, mayor of Labrador City and chair of the FCM's Atlantic regional caucus.

LaHave River, sewage, fecal bacteria

Environment Canada records show 36 million litres of untreated waste water flowed into Nova Scotia's LaHave River between November and December 2015. (CBC)

"That's just for the waste water. So communities want to do that but they really don't have the money to move forward with it."

In the case of one small town of 4,000 people, it would cost $22 million to build a sewage treatment plant, she said.

Raw sewage and untreated waste water flowing into Canada's rivers and oceans has been a problem for years, particularly in coastal communities that often found it easier — and cheaper — to simply flush raw sewage into the sea.

Untreated municipal waste water can take two forms. The first is sewage pumped directly into waterways with little or no attempt to clean it up. The second comes from older systems that combine sanitary and storm sewers. The filthy mix is normally treated before it's discharged, but if the city is hit with a deluge of rain or rapidly melting snow, the system must release the untreated water — sewage and all — into waterways to prevent it from backing up into homes.

Following years of lobbying by environmental groups, Peter Kent brought in the regulations as environment minister in 2012 to address what he calls "the completely unacceptable reality that 25 per cent of Canadian communities, large and small, have inadequate treatment or management of the waste water that they generate every day."

Peter Kent committee

Peter Kent introduced the Conservative government's tougher water standards when he was environment minister in 2012. He says the Conservatives included money for infrastructure, but some municipalities chose to spend it elsewhere. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

While some cities and towns have invested in proper sewage treatment, others "have neglected investment in their waste water management for decades," he said in an interview with CBC News.

He says the Conservatives did make money available for infrastructure projects, but many municipalities opted to build roads rather than sewage treatment plants.

"It's not very sexy to see a budget line item in city council that says waste water management or waste water infrastructure and too many municipalities have not given it the priority and the investment that it really deserves," Kent said.

With the exception of cases like Montreal's decision last year to dump raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River while badly needed repairs were carried out, attention to sewage treatment across the country appeared to ebb once the regulations were adopted.

Four years later, the results have been mixed.

Wastewater discharge in Canada by province

(CBC)

Several provinces have done worse:

  • In Newfoundland and Labrador, 10.6 billion litres of raw sewage was flushed into rivers or the ocean in 2015, more than double the amount in 2013.

  • In B.C., the province that dumps the most untreated waste water into rivers and oceans, the amount rose to 82.3 billion litres in 2015, a 32.7 per cent increase from 2013. From November to December 2015 alone, an estimated 24.8 billion litres of raw sewage were flushed into the Juan de Fuca Strait near Victoria, which recently voted to build a sewage treatment plant. 

  • In Manitoba, which has mainly combined sanitary/storm sewer systems, discharges of untreated waste water increased 70.9 per cent to 12.5 billion litres in 2015.

  • In Nova Scotia, the percentage of untreated waste water dropped by half in 2014, to 9.4 per cent, but then jumped back up to 24 per cent in 2015.

Other provinces have improved:

  • Alberta's untreated waste water dropped from eight billion litres in 2013 to just under four billion in 2015.

  • Saskatchewan, which has the lowest percentage of untreated waste water, went from 601,600 litres in 2013 to just 244,600 in 2015.

  • Ontario, which produces more waste water than any other province, is also one of the best at treating it. Its proportion of untreated waste water dropped to less than one per cent in 2015.

  • New Brunswick has also shown steady improvement, although the percentage of untreated waste water there was still nearly 13 per cent in 2015.

A discrepancy in the figures provided for Quebec for 2013 makes analysis there difficult, and Environment Canada could only speculate about the cause of the discrepancy. However, from 2014 to 2015, the percentage of untreated waste water in Quebec rose from 0.97 per cent to 1.3 per cent.


Snapshot of untreated waste water discharges, Nov.-Dec. 2015

Data provided in government response to an Opposition order paper question tabled in the House of Commons. Click on a pin to see how much untreated sewage (brown pins) or combined untreated sewage and waste water (blue) was released in that area in November and December, 2015.


Environment Canada says in some cases, the increases between 2014 and 2015 can be partly explained by better reporting. In other cases, sudden heavy rainfalls may have contributed to the increase.

May said the regulations were a start, but the Liberal government needs to monitor the results and help municipalities that don't have the money to meet them.

"Without the investment to be able to meet those regulations, without the monitoring, without capacity at a number of levels, you just have a toothless paper regulation and people hoping that no one looks to see what's going downstream."

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Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says the federal government knows more must be done to protect Canada's water. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

McKenna, who had to approve Montreal's sewage dump shortly after she was sworn in, promises to work with provinces and territories to clean up Canada's rivers and oceans.

"Canadians love the water. They love it to swim, to drink (it), to fish. It's very important to our economy and so we certainly need to be doing better."


Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca