Toronto, like the vast majority of Canadian cities, doesn’t monitor real-time data of sewage leaks into lakes, rivers or oceans. As a result, it’s unknown how much raw sewage flowed through overflow pipes when the storm overwhelmed the city’s treatment facilities. Water overflows from heavy rain, stopping a streetcar on King St. W., in Toronto on Tuesday, August 7, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shlomi Amiga

One trillion litres of sewage leaked into lakes and rivers over last five years

Toronto, like the vast majority of Canadian cities, doesn’t monitor real-time data of sewage leaks into lakes, rivers or oceans.

Last Wednesday, a team of people from the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper environmental group descended on the Toronto harbourfront looking for any signs the previous night’s massive, flash-flood rainfall had caused the city’s ancient combined sewer system to overflow into the lake.

They didn’t need to dip a single test tube into the water to know it had.

There, in plain sight and floating around the docks and pedestrian bridges along the waterfront of Canada’s biggest city, was a toxic stew of used condoms, plastic tampon applicators and mounds of shredded toilet paper, along with a countless quantity of other, unidentifiable solids.

When water testing was done, the levels of bacteria ”were off the charts,” said Krystyn Tully, vice-president of the national water advocacy group Swim Drink Fish.

Toronto, like the vast majority of Canadian cities, doesn’t monitor real-time data of sewage leaks into lakes, rivers or oceans. As a result, it’s unknown how much raw sewage flowed through overflow pipes when the storm overwhelmed the city’s treatment facilities.

Environment Canada does require municipal governments to report annually how much untreated wastewater is spilled, but settles for calculations that are based on computer models, rather than specific data of actual events.

Data provided by the federal government shows in 2017, municipalities reported 215 billion litres of raw sewage were spilled or leaked without being treated. Enough to fill 86,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, that represents an increase of 10 per cent over the amount reported five years ago.

Over the last five years, the total amount is in excess of one trillion litres.

Related: Unusually nasty odour repulses Chase residents

Related: Raw sewage, algae reported in Okanagan Lake

About two-thirds of the amount of reported in 2017 was purposely released when rains overwhelmed water systems that use a single pipe for both storm sewers and wastewater. When storms happen, the excess water can’t be handled by treatment plants and must be released into waterways to prevent basement backups.

The rest is usually the result of problems like power outages, system breakdowns or leaks. Tully, whose organization has monitored the Toronto inner harbour for the last three years, said whether it rains or not, “there isn’t a day that we’ve gone to the harbour that we haven’t been able to find some evidence of sewage contamination.”

The largest contributor to the national problem is British Columbia, where municipalities reported 77 billion litres of raw sewage that leaked or was spilled in 2017, followed by Nova Scotia at 39 million litres, Newfoundland at 29 million litres and Ontario at 22.8 million litres.

Those numbers are nowhere near the actual amounts being leaked, said Tully.

Data she obtained from Environment Canada said in 2016, only 159 of the 269 municipal water systems that are required to report sewage leaks actually did so. The agency is supposed to investigate every missing report, but Tully said the government is more focused on providing education and technical assistance.

Environment Canada also does not publicly report each spill, and very few cities do it themselves. Last year, the Ontario city of Kingston became the first in Canada to install monitors in its pipes to measure how much sewage is being leaked; the city now reports publicly in real time every time it happens.

When Kingston began using the monitors, it also found that its earlier calculations were significantly underestimating how much untreated sewage was actually being discharged, Tully said.

The municipality felt real-time monitoring was the best way to serve the public, said Jim Miller, director of utility engineering for Utilities Kingston. The eventual plan is to eliminate all its combined storm and wastewater pipes, but that will take time, he added.

“This is a long-term solution,” Miller said. ”It’s not going to happen overnight, but in the long run it is the most effective solution.”

The cost to addressing the leaks is large and the projects take a long time to finish. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates it will cost cities $18 billion to implement new regulations introduced by Ottawa in 2012 that toughened standards for treating wastewater. Those standards aren’t yet in effect; high-risk systems have until 2020 to meet them, while those deemed low risk have until 2040.

Those regulations do nothing to require cities to address the problem, even as the effects of climate change amplify the frequency of extreme rain events — a phenomenon that risks making flash floods like last week’s in Toronto far more common.

Several cities are taking on the challenge without regulation. Victoria, where decades of untreated wastewater being released into harbour prompted nearby Seattle to warn tourists from visiting, is spending $765 million to build a new treatment plant that will come online in 2020.

Toronto is embarking on a $3-billion, multi-stage project to build overflow pipes to store excess water during storms until the treatment system can handle the additional water, said Frank Quarisa, Toronto Water’s acting general manager.

But it will be 10 years before the first phase is expected to start operating, and as long as 25 years before the entire project is complete.

Tully said she thinks Canadians are appalled when they hear about the sewage, but that public reporting of the issue needs to be much more detailed and complete, with cities being required to actually monitor their leaks.

“The first thing they need to do is actually track what is coming out,” she said.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna wasn’t available for an interview Friday. But she’s familiar with the problem: just days after becoming minister, she was forced to allow Montreal to purposely dump eight billion litres of sewage into the St. Lawrence River so it could fix a pipe.

Canadian cities and the federal and provincial governments are spending billions to keep raw sewage out of waterways, but as of now, enough untreated waste spills each year to fill 86,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Some more numbers:

  • 215 billion litres: Reported amount of untreated sewage flowing into Canadian waterways in 2017.
  • 1.02 trillion litres: Reported amount of untreated sewage flowing out between 2013 and 2017.
  • 269: Number of municipal water systems that are supposed to report sewage outflows to Environment Canada each year.
  • 159: Number of municipal water systems that actually reported sewage outflows to Environment Canada each year.
  • 1: Number of municipalities known to monitor the actual amount of sewage outflows versus a calculated estimate.
  • 36 per cent: Share of total leaks and spills in 2018 that came from British Columbia.

Source: Environment Canada

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Over-budget bids cause delay of four Surrey school projects

Two projects have gone back out to tender, two awaiting ‘revised budget approval’ from Ministry of Education

Fees ensure patients have access to parking at SMH, FHA says

Fraser Health Authority hasn’t heard yet from city hall about pay parking at Surrey hospital

Free hospital parking a non-starter in White Rock

City considering task force to look at parking generally – Walker

Surrey memories: How the ‘IGUISBCSIR’ Facebook page became a hub for anecdotal history

Former Whalley resident Wes Mussato launched the group in 2011, 11 years after he’d moved to Ontario

VIDEO: B.C. legislature clerk, sergeant at arms suspended for criminal investigation

Clerk of the House Craig James, Sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz on administrative leave

Former NHL player and coach Dan Maloney dies at 68

Maloney coached the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets

Ex-MSU president charged with lying to police about Nassar

Lou Anna Simon was charged Tuesday with lying to police during an investigation

Police aim to prevent retaliation after Hells Angel found dead under B.C. bridge

IHIT confirms Chad Wilson, 43, was the victim of a ‘targeted’ homicide

Otter makes a snack out of koi fish in Vancouver Chinese garden

Staff say the otter has eaten at least five fish

Police looking into two more incidents at private Toronto all-boys’ school

Police and the school have said two of the prior incidents involved an alleged sexual assault

B.C. lumber mills struggle with shortage of logs, price slump

Signs of recovery after U.S. market swings, industry executive says

25% of Canadians still won’t say they use pot, survey says

Statistics Canada poll says Canadians on average were 18.9 years old when they first tried pot.

Canucks’ 50/50 jackpot expected to surpass $1 million

The guaranteed prize for one lucky winner will be $500,000 minimum when Vancouver hosts LA Nov 27

Most Read