No one should ever get sick from a day out on the water. Recreational water illnesses can be prevented by providing the public with reliable, current information about water quality. If people can make informed choices about where and when to swim, thousands of waterborne illnesses would be prevented each year.
That’s what makes Toronto’s recent storm – and the government’s silence – so infuriating.
Overnight on June 22-23, 2015, more than an entire month’s rain fell on Toronto. Pearson Airport recorded about 110 millimetres of rain, far more than June’s average rainfall of 70 millimetres.
Big rains usually mean big sewage problems in Toronto. The City of Toronto still refused to alert the public when sewage bypasses occur, so Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Swimmable Water Ambassadors have been calling Humber and Ashbridges after every rainfall (See bypass log here.)
Both plants bypassed sewage with only partial treatment after the storm. You probably didn’t hear about it because the city failed to issue any kind of public warning.
Even with social media chatter growing and people tweeting pictures of a chalky-brown Toronto Harbour, the city has been silent.
We know that the Ashbridges Bay bypass lasted four hours. We do not know how long Humber bypassed for. The city knows, but they aren’t saying.
Waterkeeper was told by the Humber control room that we call too often. We also heard that a memo has been sent to staff advising everyone working at the facility to withhold information about sewage bypasses from Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. (We haven’t seen the memo.)
Despite the sewage bypasses, Toronto’s beaches were all opened for swimming following the storm. June 23rd was a beautiful summer day. The beaches were packed. The harbour was full of paddlers and boaters. No one was advised to avoid the water despite the sewage and polluted water that had made it way into our waterways from both the treatment plants and the bountiful combined sewer overflow sites and stormwater outfalls along the waterfront.
All photos by Jim Panou. / Twitter: @jpanimages
Beach test results are not a perfect indicator of current water quality. They take 24 hours, so they are always a day behind. That’s why most urban cities in North America also advise residents to stay out of the water for 48 hours after it rains; that helps protect you from pollution that entered the lake between the time samples were collected and the time water quality results are available.
Sewage-polluted waters can contain all kinds pathogens, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals that can lead to illness and infection. Depending on the viruses, bacteria and protozoa transmitted through contact with contaminated recreational water there can be mild to severe health outcomes.
In the wake of this week’s storm, Torontonians should at the very least have been informed that the water they swam, paddled, and sailed in was potentially contaminated.
To enjoy the lake in Toronto, you have to work a little harder
Toronto, we are trying, but we cannot provide you with the best water quality information available. Other big-city residents have more detailed and reliable water quality reporting. Sorry. You can get sick from contact with Toronto’s waters simply because, for reasons continue to baffle us, you don’t have access to existing, current, and critical information about the health of Lake Ontario.
In the meantime:
- Join our Facebook Group for alerts and warnings when water quality may be poor.
- Check out our bypass log to see what the treatment plants are saying.
- Use Swim Guide, which now offers bypass alerts and rain advisories on all Toronto beaches. (Following a storm and bypasses, Toronto beaches are changed to Grey "no reliable data" status in Swim Guide as we wait for water quality test results from the city because we know that the “current” status is actually yesterday’s status.)
This is not an academic exercise. Lack of access to information about recreational water quality has very real repercussions.
Ontario could force Toronto to act
Back in July 2013, another severe storm saw over 1 billion litres of sewage bypasss Lake Ontario from the city’s wastewater treatment plants. The level of contamination in Toronto’s waterfront following the 2013 storm was off the charts (it literally couldn’t be determined, the levels were that high). And not a single public alert went out despite the risks to the public’s health. In June 2014 LOW submitted a request to the Province of Ontario asking the City of Toronto to issue sewage bypass alerts to the public in order to protect their health.
The Ministry of the Environment has extended its review of Toronto's sewage bypass notifications. The results of the review are now expected by June 30, 2015.