OCSI Infrastructure Forum Presentation: Swimming season is almost here, but have cities done enough to prepare for it?
Last Thursday, the Ontario Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (OCSI) hosted its third annual Infrastructure Forum – what is described as a "think tank” for ideas on the topics of economic growth, investments in infrastructure, sustainable funding, climate change, sustainability, innovation and resilient communities. Municipal decision makers and key stakeholders from the public and private sectors gathered for a constructive dialogue about the delivery of infrastructure in the province. This is what Waterkeeper's Vice-President Krystyn Tully presented.
On my way here this morning, I realized that I was right around the corner two years ago to the day.
We were holding our annual Waterkeeper Gala across the street at Palais Royale.
We’d decided to hold the event by the water, to show off the lake we loved. To give our guests a chance to be outside, on the water, looking back over the city.
The gala is a big night for water in Toronto. It’s a big night for our organization. Half our budget for the year is raised in one night. So, every job, every program rests on its success.
On that day, it poured rain. All day. Thunder and lightening. And we were holding an outdoor art auction.
Then, 30 minutes before doors opened, the sun comes out. It was beautiful.
We’re scrambling to get the event set up, knowing that people are on their way. 10 minutes before doors open I start to panic. We have nothing. No art auction. No tables. No bar. No food. People were coming, and we weren’t ready.
That’s how I feel about the Great Lakes today: People are returning to the lakes in droves. And we aren’t ready.
For my friend Jules, this means packing up lunch, her three kids, and driving for half an hour to get to the closest beach. Only to find once she gets there that it doesn’t meet water quality standards. And she has to explain to those three kids that they can’t go swimming today. That’s her Great Lakes experience.
My friend Tony loves to surf on Lake Ontario, especially when it’s windy and wavy. Unfortunately, he sees condoms and needles floating in the water around him because our combined sewage overflows and treatment plants have released sewage into the lake. That’s his Great Lakes experience.
Jules and Tony aren’t alone. Seven-million Canadians will head off to the beach only to find it closed because of water pollution.
Thirty-six thousand Ontarians will get sick after coming into contact with polluted water.
This costs us well over a billion dollars in health care, lost earnings, and lost spending on the Great Lakes.
The urban water experience isn’t yet what we’d like it to be, because of wastewater pollution. As you know, wastewater is the biggest reason for surface water pollution in Canada.
True, sewage treatment is better than it was in many ways – some of the people in this room are responsible for the progress.
But “better” doesn’t mean “good.”
In some places, more buildings are hooking up to old combined sewage pipes. More sewage is flowing to sewage treatment plants that are only getting older. And, there’s our Achilles heel: our infrastructure doesn’t stand a chance against climate change and extreme weather.
Did you know that extreme weather events precede ⅔ of all waterborne illness outbreaks?
Jules and Tony’s stories illustrate our wastewater problem, even without that compounding issue of climate change.
Their stories also contain a great lesson. Did you spot it?
Jules and Tony want to swim in the Great Lakes. The are actively trying to use the Great Lakes. They’re surfing and swimming and paddling and boating. They’re bringing friends. They are teaching their kids to appreciate and enjoy the lakes.
They aren’t alone.
In the last decade, visits to beaches in Ontario nearly doubled.
A recent IJC survey shows that 86% of Great Lakes residents want the Great Lakes to be safe for recreational use.
Frankly, this is the best news that we could have. Because we need people to enjoy these lakes. Not want. Not hope. Need.
Because water is the foundation for our prosperity. For a post-industrial economy, quality of life is key to urban prosperity. In fact, half of Canadian adults choose where they live specifically because of the proximity to nature.
In business parlance, the Great Lakes are Ontario’s “unique value proposition,” our “unfair advantage.”
They are also key to our physical health, key to our mental health, and key to our social lives.
If that’s not enough to convince you, then remember that we need the Great Lakes to ensure our very survival.
Two years ago, back at the Palais Royale, we got lucky. A huge traffic jam on Lakeshore delayed our guests. They were all late. By the time they walked through the door, we were ready.
We won’t be so lucky when it comes to the Great Lakes. Jules and Tony are already out there, trying to connect with the lakes.
We here are all trying hard. But we’re still failing them.
We can do better. We can give Ontarians what they want: swimmable water, every day, everywhere. Our future prosperity depends on it.