Nearly 60 million litres of raw sewage released into Winnipeg river during recent storm
Another 74.26 million litres was released during an 8-day stretch in March
The City of Winnipeg says it had to release 59.6 million of litres of untreated sewage into the Red River during a weekend storm or risk having it back up into the basements of homes.
"It's a difficult decision that we have to make," said Chris Carroll, the city's manager of wastewater services.
"On the one hand, it's difficult for this to happen in the community, and that's unfortunate," he said, referring to the sewage dumped into a body of water.
"The other alternative is you have sewage waste water piling up in people's basements. And in this instance, if there was issues at the treatment plant, which is the end of the system, it's possible you'd have quite widespread basement flooding in the south end of the city."
The rain began Friday and didn't stop until Sunday, dumping as much as seven centimetres in some parts of the city. It was coming down at its heaviest on Saturday, overwhelming underpasses and creating lakes across roads, when the city had to make some difficult decisions.
The city's Water and Waste Department's online reporting of untreated sewage said high flow levels at the South End Wastewater Treatment Plant exceeded the capacity of its four raw sewage pumps.
As the levels increased beyond normal operating range into the evening, there was the risk of equipment failures and power outages.
"It was decided that there was a serious risk of basement flooding upstream of the treatment plant and, considering the current and forecasted weather conditions, steps were taken to divert flow … directly to the Red River," the incident report says.
Around 12 a.m. Sunday, the pumps at three wastewater pumping stations were shut down: 905 Cockburn St. South (by Churchill Drive), 246 Churchill Dr. by Baltimore Road, and 3 Mager Dr. West, off of St. Mary's Road.
"Turning off these pumps resulted in diluted wastewater being released into the Red River instead of being sent … for treatment. At the time of this shutdown, all three pumping stations were already experiencing overflows," the report states.
The pumps were turned back on at 10 a.m. Monday. In all, the sewage poured into the water for one day, 22 hours and 55 minutes, the report states.
Carroll said even though some people still had water in their basements, the city's infrastructure did its job. The south end treatment plant took on 1.256 billion litres of water, he said.
"In comparison to the controlled release we did, that equates to … about five per cent of load. So I think it's important perspective that 95 per cent of the water we were able to capture and send to the facilities," he said.
Despite that move, there were still 450 flooded basements reported to the city between Saturday and Tuesday.
The incident has been reported to the Manitoba Environment, Climate and Parks accident reporting line, the city said.
Sewage dumps during times of high water are not unusual in Winnipeg, but the amount released on the weekend could be among the largest amounts ever.
On one August day in 2018, the city released slightly more than three million litres. That was the largest amount the city had recorded since five million litres of raw sewage flowed into the Red River in early 2016.
But this year has far surpassed that on several occasions. The Water and Waste Department's reporting site lists releases every day from March 15 until the 22nd.
Other than .09 million litres on the first day, every other day saw between 5.7 and 20.2 million litres. The total during the entire stretch was 74.26 million litres.
Winnipeg's problem stems from old infrastructure. About a third of the city relies on a combined sewer system — pipes that collect both raw sewage and runoff from rainfall or melting snow.
There is a plan in place to expand and improve the system, but it could take about 70 years to finish.
"The 70-year time horizon just seems unacceptable. These sorts of events point out we've got a lot of work to do, and we've got to start putting some real money into this," said Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital), who fought for an increase to combined-sewer overflow projects in the most recent budget.
"There's no ribbon-cutting, but it's hugely important to quality of life and quality of the rivers."
Manitoba Hydro is also still cleaning up from the storm, which swept across the entire southern half of the province, snapping dozens of wood poles.
About 60 customers remain without power across the province as of Wednesday evening. At its peak on Sunday, the outage affected 15,000 customers.
With files from Sam Samson