Toronto may soon send real-time water quality alerts after storms

Toronto may soon issue real time public updates when storms and wet weather affect water quality in Lake Ontario.

Sewage can flow into lake after storms due to aging infrastructure

After storms, sewage is released from the city's aging water treatment plants into Lake Ontario. The city will start notifying the public when this happens. (Joshua Errett/CBC)

Toronto may soon issue real time public updates when storms and wet weather affect water quality in Lake Ontario.

Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change made the recommendation in its response to a legal application by the advocacy group Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. The group had filed an application for review of public reporting of water quality during severe weather events, under the provincial Environmental Bill of Rights.

The application had asked the ministry to review the City of Toronto's Environmental Compliance Approvals for the Ashbridges Bay and Humber wastewater treatment plants. The application had asked that the ministry change these guidelines to include a requirement that the city notify the public of all sewage bypass and sewer overflow events.

Sewage bypasses and spills can happen when large amounts of water are directed to the treatment plants via the city's storm sewer system, causing "capacity issues."

"Concluding the review, the ministry agrees that there are more opportunities to: ensure that the public are aware of poor surface water quality during and after severe weather evens (outside of designated beach areas), and to increase transparency about bypass events at waste water treatment plants," the ministry said in its response, which Waterkeeper received on Wednesday.

Waterkeeper's founder and president Mark Mattson wanted the public to be aware when rainwater causes under-treated sewage to flow into the lake.

"We know where the beaches are, whether they're open or closed, but the rest of the 55 kilometres of the waterfront, we have no idea what's going on," said Mattson.

The city already posts test results of water samples taken at the city's beaches online.

Mattson said the public only found out there was sewage in the water outside of the city's beaches when his organization filed Freedom of Information requests. He said the city was "not that keen" to move on the clean water notifications, which is why Mattson, an environmental lawyer, filed the legal application. The legal work took nearly two years.

"It's a really great decision and an important step in reclaiming Lake Ontario as a clean and recreational body of water," Mattson said.

He's hoping the city will put updates on its website and social media to push out information about water quality after storms in the near future.

A spokesman for Toronto Water said that as of Wednesday afternoon, the department had not received its own copy of the ministry's decision. However, responding to the findings, the department is "committed" to working with the ministry "on continuing to provide accurate, meaningful and reliable public education and awareness on the complex issue of water quality."

The department "welcomes the opportunity to consult" with the ministry on ways to make the public aware of water quality tests after severe weather, including reporting bypasses in real time.

The ministry said it expects progress on this "in the coming months."


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