On June 15, 2016 Waterkeeper's Krystyn Tully was one of the featured speakers at Mindfirst's Global Sustainable Cities seminar where infrastructure and extreme weather were heavily discussed. Krystyn specifically spoke about wet weather, flooding, and urban water quality issues.
This is Krystyn's presentation.
We started Lake Ontario Waterkeeper in 2001 because we believed that a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future is both necessary and possible.
We have tackled a number of issues over the years, helped to shape law and policy in Ontario and encouraged cleanups of contaminated sites.
Through our local work and our growing national programs at Swim Drink Fish Canada, we often find ourselves acting as a bridge between government and industry professionals and grassroots communities.
One group makes infrastructure choices. The other group lives with the consequences. It is important that they get to know each other.
So, I am excited to be here focusing on sewage pollution - the unfortunate and currently inevitable consequence of water, floods, and extreme weather in the urban environment.
If I have one message today, it is this:
Everyone who works on sewage infrastructure - nonprofit, government, private sector - we are all public servants.
We owe the public swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. And we are failing.
Sewage pollution, which includes stormwater, is the most common cause of water pollution in Canada. It affects the most people in the most communities.
There are three main ways sewage gets into the water:
- combined sewage overflows, which run from your house to a treatment plant in dry weather and to the closest body of water in wet weather
- plant bypasses, when partially treated sewage is intentionally dumped because the system is overloaded
- from pipes and plants in systems where there is no adequate treatment at all, like in Victoria
- We’ve known about sewage problems in Canadian cities for decades.
Now climate change is making the problem far worse.
Rain and snow trigger the biggest sewage spills, sending water into the sewage system that causes overflows, flooding, bypasses, and backups.
More extreme weather means more spills, which in turn means more people are getting sick.
To give you a sense of the scale of the problem, ⅔ of all waterborne illness outbreaks on the Great Lakes are preceded by extreme weather events.
At risk of being dramatic: Unless we solve our sewage infrastructure issues, our way of life isn’t secure. Those things we value most - family, healthy, economic stability - are not secure:
Physical safety - think of the kindergarten classroom in Peel that filled with 1-metre of water in an hour during a storm.
Property - think of Albertans who had to live in refugee camps for 6 months because they lost their homes and possessions in a flood.
Health - Sewage-polluted water contains bacteria, viruses, toxic chemicals, and plastics that threaten human and aquatic life. Think of the people who are in the water with that sewage.
We used to think of big storms as once-in-a-lifetime events. But extreme weather and sewage spills are now a way of life.
In Toronto, we’ve had 3 hundred-year storms in a decade. We’ve had 8 twenty-five-year storms. Our cities are growing, meaning more wastewater is being created and more upstream greenspace being developed. More water. Fewer safe places for it to go.
In Toronto alone, there were 148 treatment plant bypasses between 2012-2015.
The worst outfall in the city is near my house - in one 6-month period, it spewed 291-million litres of raw sewage into the Black Creek.
For decades, we have, largely, been tolerant of these spills.
That can’t last.
The economic costs are staggering. A $26-billion bill to bring sewage infrastructure up to middling standards.
Not to mention the enormous cost of extreme wet weather events, like the ones experienced in Alberta and Ontario in 2013.
There are also health care costs. In Ontario alone, 36,000 people will get sick after touching polluted water this year.
The treatment, lost wages, and opportunity cost of those waterborne illnesses is estimated to be up to $1-billion per year.
All of which takes a toll on our quality of life.
One in five Canadians will head off to the beach this summer, only to discover that it’s too polluted to swim.
Knowing how important beach time is to physical, mental, and social health, is this what we want?
It’s not what people want. I can tell you that.
If you are involved in urban planning or economic development, you need to know that access to the water and nature is paramount. 50% of Canadian adults choose where they live based on proximity to nature.
Clean water promises quality of life.
A recent survey by the International Joint Commission shows that 86% of Great Lakes residents want the Great Lakes to be safe for recreational use.
They prioritize swimmable, drinkable, fishable water above all else.
And they walk the walk.
In Ontario, visits to beaches nearly doubled in the last decade.
People are flocking to water. And we aren't ready for them.
This growing demand for accessible clean water is happening at a time when flooding is getting worse. The capacity challenges we identified 20 years ago are nothing compared to what we face in the coming decades.
So, what can we do?
To build future-proof cities, two things have to happen:
- Eliminate CSOs
- Communicate with the public
Every water system management, flood, and wet weather emergency plan must include a public communications system.
When a billion litres of raw sewage flowed into Toronto’s waters in 2013, we watched in horror as residents splashed and swam through polluted waters. They had no idea the water was contaminated, no idea they were compromising their health. They should have been told.
I can get notifications on my wrist when the Blue Jays score, but no one will tell me when sewage is flowing into the creek in my backyard. That's not right.
We work for the public. Everyone in this room. The public elect us. They fund us. They pay for our services. When we have information that could protect them, that information must be shared. And it must be shared at the moment people need it most.
If people get factual information - like sewage bypass and combined sewage overflow alerts at the moment those spills are happening - two things happen.
First people can use that information to protect their health - or at least take informed risks.
Second, information delivered at the moment that it’s relevant will finally help people make the connection between sewage infrastructure issues, water rates, infrastructure investment. Know what? When people see how their water rates translate into measurable water quality improvements, they’re much more likely to support infrastructure spending.
One other thing. The private sector is really good at developing innovative solutions to problems. They aren’t so good at developing solutions to problems they don’t know exist. So why hide our infrastructure challenges? Why not talk openly about them and let the community solve them together?
A combined sewage pipe creates a direct connection between your toilet and your closest body of water.
We can talk about minimizing overflow events by reducing the volume of water that gets into the system, but at the end of the day, you cannot have clean water if you have a direct link from toilets and factories to the lake.
They have to go.