New climate plan requires municipalities to warn public about sewage spills into lakes, streams

While many environmental groups were critical of the Ontario Progressive Conservative government's climate plan, proposed regulations around monitoring water quality is an improvement, accord to Swim Drink Fish Canada.

Old infrastructure becoming increasingly overwhelmed by new climate realities, experts say

Humber Bay Treatment Plant after a rainstorm in July, 2013. As a result of a power outage, more than one billion litres of raw sewage was dumped into Lake Ontario in a single day. (Swim Drink Fish Canada/supplied)

The province's new climate plan may force hundreds of municipalities across Ontario to publicly report when any raw sewage is dumped directly into lakes and rivers, and provide the gritty details.

The Ontario government's program, called Preserving and Protecting our Environment for Generations: A Made-In-Ontario Environment Plan, calls for increased monitoring and public reporting of sewage overflows.

This real-time monitoring is something Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a charity associated with a national group called Swim Drink Fish Canada, has been advocating for for quite some time.

"There are a lot of disappointments [in the plan] but there is also a really hopeful sign that the government wants to increase transparency through real time monitoring of sewage overflows from municipal wastewater systems," said Mark Mattson, the co-founder of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and the president of Swim Drink Fish.

"We think transparency and real-time monitoring is an essential building block of swimmable, drinkable, fishable water."

Mark Mattson. the co-founder of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and president of Swim Drink Fish, says transparency and real time monitoring of sewage bypassing treatment facilities is a good first step to improve the province's water quality. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

In many communities, the culprit is old infrastructure that relies on cross-connected or combined pipes.

During severe storms, which have become more common in recent years, sewer systems get overwhelmed by storm water. Untreated wastewater discharges into lakes and streams when municipalities allow that water to bypass treatment plants.

A total of 1,327 such bypasses were reported to the ministry during the 2017-18 fiscal year.

The new climate plan says the province "will work with municipalities and other partners to increase transparency through real-time monitoring of the sewage overflows from municipal wastewater systems, which too often flow into Ontario's lakes and rivers."

Mattson says if the rules are clear and enforceable, it could be a crucial turning point for Great Lakes communities.

"I think on this on this point, on real time monitoring of sewage overflows, the government has to be commended for taking such swift action and pushing the municipalities to go down this road," he said.

Mattson said the city of Kingston is already doing real-time monitoring and his group went to the provincial environment commissioner to force the city of Toronto to do the same.

A City of Toronto sewage bypass alert. Ontario may soon require all municipalities to notify the public when raw sewage is released into rivers, lakes and streams. (supplied)

Toronto "has not been onside with real time monitoring of sewage overflows," Mattson said.

"Which is one of the reasons why this summer, for example, we took over 900 samples in the inner harbour and worked with hundreds of volunteers to really underscore the impact that sewage is having in the harbour," he added.

In her annual report last month, Ontario's environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe urged the province to act.

"It's unbelievable that in 2018 the government allow this much filth into our lake and rivers every year," she said.

"These are the places where Ontarians spend time with our families, where we swim, where we fish."

While the province is pushing for real-time sewage bypass monitoring as Saxe had urged, it also announced that the office of the environmental commissioner would be merged with the Auditor General's office.

Ontario's environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe urged the province to do something about the raw sewage being dumped into lakes by municipalities. (CBC)

Pat Vanini, executive director of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), said upgrading wastewater treatment and storm water management systems would require multi-million-dollar infrastructure investments.

"Many municipal governments have already separated their storm water sewers from their wastewater treatment systems," said Vanini.

"These projects are costly and municipal property taxes alone cannot cover large-scale infrastructure investments."

Vanini said federal and provincial governments will need to provide adequate funding for infrastructure investments that are needed to address new climate realities.

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One.


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