Gatineau to finally track sewer overflows into the Ottawa River

Gatineau has long lagged behind Ottawa when it comes to dealing with raw sewage and storm water that spills into area rivers. Now, it's finally taking stock of how much it contributes to the problem.

City has 92 overflow points where raw sewage and storm water discharge into the Ottawa River

Gatineau's plant on rue Notre-Dame, seen here in August 2016, treats 150 million litres of sewage and wastewater a day. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The City of Gatineau is installing devices so it can finally measure the volume of its sewer overflows into the Ottawa River.

The move comes years after its Ontario neighbour, the City of Ottawa, launched its 17-project Ottawa River action plan worth hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the same waterway.

"We don't have the data for now," said Yves Faubert, the supervisor of Gatineau's sewage treatment plant said on a recent tour of the east-end facility.

Part of the challenge, he said, is that Gatineau has 92 sites where a combination of raw sewage and storm water can discharge, especially when the sewer system is overloaded by big storms or spring melts that would otherwise flood basements. Ottawa, by contrast, has just 18 such sites.

And, while the 92 overflow points seems high, it's actually fewer than the 120 outlets that existed five years ago, said Chantal Marcotte, the head of Gatineau's environment department. As Gatineau separates sewage from storm water into separate pipes, it's been able to close off some outlets.

How much wastewater spills?

Because of new Quebec regulations that took effect in 2014, Gatineau is now installing monitoring devices at 50 of those sites.

Finally, the city will have real-time data about how often the overflows happen, and for how long.

Before now, Gatineau had a rudimentary system where an employee would check sewer outlets once a week to see if a little piece of floating wood in the sewer had moved, signalling there had been an overflow.
The City of Gatineau is installing 50 measuring devices at points around the city where sewers can overflow to gather data for a strategy for dealing with the problem. (Radio-Canada)

Some 1,300 overflows happened in 2015, staff estimate, but Gatineau has no way of knowing the volume of those spills the way Ottawa does.

The Ottawa Riverkeeper, Meredith Brown, finds those figures astounding.

"That's huge," said Brown of the 1,300 overflows. Ottawa counted 80 overflow events in the same year.

"I don't think people really understand how often untreated sewage is going in the river."

"The fact that there's so many (sewer outlets in Gatineau) means there's not much shoreline there that doesn't have one pipe close to it," said Brown, who advocates for the health of the river.

Strategy coming by end of 2017

Having real-time data from the monitoring devices will help staff figure out the city's true problem spots, according to the head of the city's environment department, Chantal Marcotte.

Then they'll know where to focus their efforts in a strategy for dealing with sewer overflows that's due by the end of 2017. It will be a balancing act between the ultimate solution of spending money to separate all sewage and storm water into separate pipes, which could cost $350 million, or dealing mainly with problem areas.

Staff already know that ten of the 92 outlets are problematic and not compliant with regulations because those outlets have been known to overflow even when there is no big storm or spring melt. 

The Ottawa Riverkeeper still says she'd like to see Gatineau do more, and sooner.

It shouldn't have taken so many years and a change of regulations for Gatineau to start tracking its overflows, she said.

"I think it's irresponsible," said Brown. "I think for any municipality, any business, anybody who's operating on the Ottawa River, they have a responsibility to all Canadians to be good stewards and understand the impact they're having on the river."

Sewage treatment plant to get an upgrade

While the city tries to track overflows, and separate storm pipes from sewer pipes, Gatineau's sewage treatment plant has issues of its own.
Supervisor Yves Faubert gave media a tour of Gatineau's wastewater treatment plant on rue Notre-Dame in August 2016. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Operators often have to let wastewater flow past the plant on rue Notre-Dame in the city's east end and into the river, not fully treated, especially during spring runoff and big storms.

So the city is in the early stages of a $150 million upgrade — one the Ottawa Riverkeeper says has been on the books for a decade — that will boost the amount of wastewater the plant can treat.

With greater capacity, the plant will direct less wastewater straight to the river, said Faubert.

"It boils down to money"

When she reflects on the different approaches so far to improve the health of the Ottawa River — a waterway that is the main source of drinking water for both cities — Brown says it all "boils down to money" and municipal priorities.
Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown says it shouldn't have taken so long for Gatineau to start tracking its sewer overflows. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The Ottawa Riverkeeper credits Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson for making the river's water quality part of his election campaigns, getting the action plan approved by council in 2010, and then securing the funding for the many projects, including the big-ticket underground sewage storage tunnel that's under construction.

Likewise, she says Gatineau city council needs to make overflows a priority, and the Quebec government needs to funnel money that way. 

Gatineau councillors have signalled to staff they need to be ready to make a strong case for sewer improvement projects when the federal government starts its big, promised spending on infrastructure.

"If I'm with my family, with my kids, I don't want to swim near a combined sewer overflow," said Brown.


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.

with files from Marie-Lou St-Onge