Raw sewage spills must be tackled to protect the water

There was a time when we could all sit back and just let the rain wash our collective sins away, but with a burgeoning number of human beings clogging up the planet, each of us seemingly hell bent on increasing the amount of sewage we produce, those days are past. Or at least they should be. But Canadians were recently shocked to learn that enough raw sewage to fill 86,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools had been spilled and or leaked into our nation’s waterways last year. That’s 215 billion litres of raw sewage and about two thirds of it was voluntarily released by municipalities into nearby waterways when storm events overwhelmed the city’s treatment facilities. Tally it up over the past five years and the balance sheet goes north of one trillion litres.

That number is up 10 percent over five years ago, and what’s even worse is that those numbers are generally accepted to be on the very low side, because even though Environment Canada does require those spills to be reported, the numbers are really only guestimates gleaned from computer modelling. On the very few occasions that the computer estimates have been benchmarked against real world data, those numbers fall very far short of reality.

Also causing a lowballing of the numbers is that according to Environment Canada date, in 2016 only 159 of the 269 municipal water systems that are required to report sewage leaks actually do so. That problem is not likely to be fixed any time soon because Environment Canada, although required to investigate those failures to report, doesn’t have the resources to do so.

Of course, as is usually the case, the problem comes down to a question of money.

It is estimated that it will cost $18 billion to even meet standards set in 2012, and those don’t kick in for high risk municipal systems until 2020, the rest have until 2040 to dawdle along.

The recent storm event that put many Toronto streets awash may have been uncommon in the past, but the reality of climate change (and the consequences of climate change is a reality we must come to face regardless as to who or what is causing it) means that such events are going to become all too common in future years.

While it is easy to think of this as a big city problem, nothing could be further from the truth. It is not at all uncommon for our tiny Island communities to find themselves staring at “floaties” floating along our waterfronts when a major rainstorm passes through. The town of Little Current has been wrestling with the issue perennially. Municipal staff suspect the culprits are sump systems hooked into the sewage system, causing huge inflows of water that overwhelm the town’s lagoons with alarming frequency.

It isn’t that the municipalities are not trying to deal with the issue. In the Northeast Town’s case the municipality in recent years hired a firm to smoke test the sewage lines in an attempt to identify those systems hooked into the sewers. Unfortunately, while some issues were identified and action taken to remediate, the numbers still do not add up to fully remedy the situation.

This isn’t simply a hypothetical “other guys” problem. The strained capacity of sewage lagoons either limits potential development, puts additional expensive strain on water treatment plants that are reflected in everyone’s water rates, or leads to a premature need for expanded sewage lagoons—and anyone familiar with municipal infrastructure can tell you, none of that comes cheap. It all costs us in the end, and given the speed that climate change is descending upon us, the bills will be escalating with no one to blame but ourselves.

Water is the very foundation of life and we must all step up to do our part to help protect this incredible treasure that surrounds us, if we don’t we will all too soon learn that treasure is not truly “boundless,” but all too fragile and vulnerable to our indifference.