In the summer, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change decided that the City of Toronto must start alerting residents when wet weather may cause water quality concerns and when sewage treatment plants are bypassing into Lake Ontario.
The decision was the result of a year-long investigation by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, followed by a year-long review by the Ministry. Both organizations confirmed that the City’s aging infrastructure can’t treat 100% of the sewage in the system after it rains or when there is a major snow melt. Partially-treated sewage is bypassed into Lake Ontario and untreated sewage is sent into city rivers and the waterfront through “combined sewer” overflows. As a result, bacteria levels and general pollution in the lake increase significantly in wet weather.
To make it easy for the city to alert residents, Waterkeeper drafted a model wet weather alert. It’s based on the City of Toronto’s existing hot and cold weather advisories. Using information that is already available at the sewage treatment plants, these alerts could be sent to public and media using the city’s existing website, social media, and media alert systems.
It’s been three months since the Ministry’s decision and Toronto residents still don’t receive wet weather advisories. To highlight the importance of this issue, we’re bringing you 30 reasons Torontonians need wet weather advisories now.”
We’ll add one reason every day, so check back often.
Why do Torontonians need wet weather advisories now?
- And the last reason in our month-long roundup… is up to you. You tell us:
- Every day that goes by without these alerts is another day the public risk of rash or illnesses is higher than it needs to be. Bacteria levels in Lake Ontario and Toronto rivers spike after heavy rain. We can tell you this now, but it is a boring, forgettable fact on a sunny day at the office. It’s a crucial, behaviour-altering fact when you plan to spend a rainy day on the water. Let’s give people the information they need at the time they need it.
- Toronto’s wastewater infrastructure investment plan has a price tag of $3-billion dollars. Reminding people of the connection between rainfall and water pollution helps to explain to residents why that’s $3-billion of money well spent.
- Lake Ontario is swimmable by default. We shouldn’t be training people to assume Toronto’s waters are “gross until you hear otherwise.” That’s basically how it works today - when people are uncertain about water quality, they write off the entire body of water forever.
- The “public” can help protect “public health.” Give us the information we need, and citizens become the most powerful allies in public health promotion that the city could ever want. If we know when waters are most likely to be contaminated, we can take precautions to protect our health, minimizing the burden on public health officials.
- Because these Great Lakes are the only ones like this in the known universe. Think about that. We have access to freshwater treasures. We should value them accordingly, starting with speaking openly and frankly about the waste we dump, when, and where we dump it.
- It’s costing Toronto businesses money. When people use the water, they spend money in the local community. They rent canoes, buy snacks, take the TTC, and do all kinds of things that bolster the area. When they are afraid of the water, they stay away - and they take their money with them.
- It’s time Toronto started appearing on “best beaches in Canada” lists. We have some of the best swimming just blocks from downtown, but we don’t celebrate that fact. Being transparent about wet weather issues also makes it clear to the world that Toronto’s urban beaches are clean enough to swim most of the time.
- When we hurt our lakes, rivers, and oceans, we’re hurting ourselves. As Tony Casey explained in the Johnson City Press, “Having grown up just below Montreal and spending lots of time on the St. Lawrence River, I felt a physical pain in the days leading up to the dump and during the week-long sewage purge. The pain remains, knowing that I’m part of the modern civilization that requires these sorts of actions.”
- The more people know, the more they can help (as Angela Ward noted in her comment). If the public knows there has been a spill, they can help report debris or other concerns to the city. They can support investment and policy proposals to improve the system. In short, they can be part of the solution.
- “Open Government” is supposed to be the new normal. Here’s what the City of Toronto says: “The City is committed to 'opening up government.' A committee of senior staff promotes the transformation to an organizational culture of greater collaboration and openness. We are changing strategies, policies, technology systems and business processes to encourage openness as 'just a way of doing business.'”
- People are starting to think dumping sewage in waterways is normal. There’s nothing normal about leaving the St. Lawrence River unswimmable and unfishable for any period of time. Rationalizing Montreal’s sewage dump by saying this is just how the city deals with sewage doesn’t make the situation better – it makes it worse. The way of the past doesn’t have to be the way of the future.
- As Toronto goes, other cities will follow. As the largest city in the country, Toronto is incredibly influential. And after this week’s news about Hamilton’s sewage spill, there’s clearly no better time to start showing leadership.
- No other level of government is releasing information about bypasses or issuing wet weather advisories. If the city doesn’t do it, no one else will.
- Delay fuels confusion. Citizens and media were quick to jump on the Highland Creek treatment plant “crap bubble” story, but it was too hard for them to find up-to-date, accurate information.
- People care. The outcry over Montreal’s sewage dump, which ended this weekend, shows just how much people want to know what’s in their water – and how much they want to find solutions.
- It will make residents like the City more. We all like institutions we can trust, institutions who seem to be looking out for our health and safety. We’re ready when you are, Toronto.
- Winter is coming. Winter means snow. Snow melts. Melts cause bypasses. Sewage pollution is not a summertime problem, and now is not the time to hibernate.
- Residents need to understand the scale of the problem. If we are reminded about the connection between wet weather and poor water quality, we’ll be motivated to install those rain barrels, gardens, and take other steps to do our part. (Thanks Dan, for the suggestion!)
- Sewage pollution is embarrassing. As Paul noted on our Facebook Page, “Dumping is the way of the past. We live in better times and smart people can solve many complex problems."
- Sewage dumping is rampant in Canada. Sure, it’s not Toronto’s fault that the City of Montreal is about to dump a week’s worth of sewage into the St. Lawrence River. But wouldn’t it be nice to if Canada’s big cities competed to be the “most swimmable city” rather than the “least-bad sewage polluter?"
- We ran out of money to maintain our sewage bypass log two months ago. When our Swimmable Water Ambassadors went back to school, our project officially ended. We really didn’t think it would take the city this long to start alerting the public to bypasses, so we didn’t have a “Plan B.” Chloe and Ruby took over the phone log out of the goodness of their hearts and will continue to maintain it until the city starts issuing its own alerts. The fact that a nonprofit can maintain this service but the city can’t, is silly.
- Fall / Winter is a great time to test the new alert system. There are water users on the lake, but it’s not the height of the swimming season.
- The public is entitled to the information under information request laws - proactive disclosure just gets it into people's hands before it's too late.
- There’s no reason to withhold this information. Silence doesn’t offer any public benefit.
- It would prevent the spread of waterborne illness, immediately. Contact with bacteria-laden water increases your chances of contracting a waterborne illness, anything from a small rash to hepatitis. Alerting the public when sewage (including “partially-treated” sewage) is in the water gives people the information they need to take precautions. You can move your fishing trip upstream or wash your hands thoroughly after kayaking and increase your odds of going home in good health.
- People want to know. Waterkeeper reached out to recreational water users in Toronto in 2014 and 2015 and more than 1,000 people told us they want to receive alerts when there are bypasses or combined sewage overflows.
- It’s easy. The City already reports bypasses to the province as soon as they happen. Sharing the same information with residents is as simple as updating a website or posting a tweet.
- People are still out on the water. The beaches may be closed for the summer, but boaters, paddlers, and surfers still flock to the water. On the waterfront and lower stretches of the Humber River – areas especially at risk from bypasses and combined sewage overflows - the fishing season for the most popular fish lasts all-year long. Those recreational water users deserve protection, too.
- Toronto had its two longest sewage bypasses last week, and the public wasn’t told. On October 28-29, Ashbridges Bay wastewater treatment plant bypassed for 15 hours and 27 minutes. Humber bypassed for 12 hours. The city did issue a wet weather warning, but neglected to mention bypasses or combined sewer overflows may impair water quality in the city. One extra bullet point could have given people who spend time near the lake or city rivers the information they need to protect their health around contaminated waters.