Winnipeg sewage system upgrades 'sadly' on pace with incremental improvement since 2013: councillor
Costs for upgrades to Winnipeg's sewer system now estimated at $2.3B, city plan says
Winnipeggers will deal with flooded basements and sewage in the rivers for decades as the city's sewer improvement plan crawls along at its current pace.
The city has increased the amount of rainfall, snowmelt and sewage its systems can hold by one percentage point since 2013.
But that's right on track, one city councillor said.
"It looks appalling, but when you think we're a tenth of the way for a tenth of the cost, I think, sadly, we're on pace," water and waste committee chair Coun. Brain Mayes (St. Vital) said in a Wednesday interview.
"It's just hugely expensive."
About a third of the city still relies on a combined sewer system — pipes that collect both raw sewage and runoff from rainfall or snowmelt.
If that system gets overwhelmed, the city dumps the wastewater into the river system in what the city calls a combined sewer overflow.
In 2021, the city estimates it dumped 10.6 billion litres of sewage into the rivers, according to the city's latest annual combined sewer overflow report.
The province of Manitoba approved a plan to fix that dumping in 2019. The combined sewer overflow (CSO) master plan has a goal of capturing 85 per cent of wastewater by 2045.
The total cost to upgrade the city's sewage system has previously been estimated at $1.8 billion, but the plan now says it is now estimated at $2.3 billion.
As of 2021, city staff say the systems are capturing 75 per cent of the wastewater from the combined system — an improvement of a single percentage point from the 2013 baseline measurement of 74 per cent.
"This number will increase when the final stages of current construction works are brought online," Linda McCusker, acting manager of engineering for water and waste, writes in the annual report.
But that may not happen for decades.
'Going to be status quo for a while'
The CSO master plan includes previous sewer projects to double the number of pipes so rainwater and sewage aren't combined.
It also includes building large underground storage tanks, creating green infrastructure projects to keep rainwater out of the sewer systems, controlling the flow of wastewater better, and trying to catch debris before it gets into the sewer system.
The progress from those plans could slow down even more if provincial and federal funding doesn't come through, the report says.
The original plan required each level of government to put in $30 million every year to reach the provincially set deadline of 2045.
Mayes said there aren't any current formal requests for that money, since the city is focusing on requests to develop the North End Sewage Treatment Plant.
- Province's removal of conditions on federal cash for Winnipeg sewage upgrades 'helps move things along': CFO
If the city doesn't get federal and provincial money, the timeline for completing the sewer upgrades climbs all the way to 2095, according to the report.
"Is it going to be status quo for a while? Yes," said Mayes, adding that the city boosted its own funding promise in the last budget.
"Are there going to be more spills? Unfortunately, yes. But we're slugging away at the problem more seriously now."
But Mayes believes things can speed up. He said city staff added too many contingencies to come up with the $2.3 billion price tag, and he wants to know why. He said he'll bring it up at next week's water and waste meeting.
The $2.3 billion estimate relies on what's known as a Class 5 capital cost estimate — a rough estimate that is considered to have a wide accuracy range, with actual costs that could be as much as 50 per cent lower or 100 per cent higher than the estimate.
"I think we just need to take a look at our experience and say it isn't coming in 100 per cent over the estimate — it's coming in under the estimate so far," said Mayes.
"Maybe this isn't a $2 billion bite of the apple. Maybe it's only $1 billion. Then what's a realistic time frame to get that done?"
If that's the case, Mayes said it's more realistic to believe the city can finish the project by 2045 on its own.
So far, the city has committed $157 million to this project since 2013, and another $240 million over the next six years, according to the report.
Sewage rates will continue to rise to deal with inflation and the ongoing project, the report says, but the city can't rely on that alone to pay for the costs.
The level to which sewage rates would have to rise would be "unaffordable" for taxpayers, it says.
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