“What are you doing here?” the guy in the blue T-shirt asks me.
We are standing beside the busiest sailing and paddling centre in Toronto. Behind me, there is a small group of Waterkeeper staff and volunteers and a reporter from WBFO. They’re armed with clipboards, sample bottles, and smartphones.
“We are collecting some water samples to see if there is bacteria in the lake today,” I say. “We’ll be out of your way in a couple of minutes.”
Inside, I’m wondering if he knows that directly beneath our feet is a “combined sewage” outfall. It’s a pipe where stormwater and sanitary sewage (toilets, restaurant wastewater) merge and flow into the lake after heavy rain.
It is one of 9 outfalls in the heart of the Toronto harbour. They’re hard to spot, underwater at the edge of Queen’s Quay and the lake. If you know where to look, you can sometimes see the slow flow of water on a clear day.
Those outfalls are a common thread that connects - literally - the soaring condos, office towers, and restaurants in the downtown core. Here, at the water’s edge, sewage and stormwater flow from those downtown neighbourhoods into Lake Ontario.
The sewage pipes don’t overflow every day. In a dry summer like this one, overflows are rare. But that raw, open connection between toilets and the lake means that even dry days can be pollution days.
That’s how it was two weeks ago, when our president Mark Mattson approached Toronto in our boat. Mark and his crew were bringing the Angus Bruce from its home on Wolfe Island so we can conduct a multi-week sampling program in Toronto harbour.
As Mark, Colin, and Brett approached Toronto, they first saw a long line of plant-like debris. Looking closer, they noticed that the plants were dotted with plastics, like food wrappers. And tampon applicators. And condoms. They followed the line of condoms for about two kilometres towards Ashbridges Bay. They took photos and sent me the information. I called the provincial Spills Action Centre and reported what appeared to be a sewage spill.
“Where is it coming from?” the operator asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Ashbridges Bay sewage treatment plant is right there, so that’s one possibility. Some of those combined sewage outfalls would be another possibility. The holding tanks that are supposed to help during rainstorms are a third possibility. I don’t say any of that, though, because those are just guesses. And we’re here for facts.
The crew made a video, posted it online, and it made the rounds on social media that weekend.
We’re not sure if anyone from the province or the city conducted an investigation to find the source. We do know that the waste wasn’t cleaned up. Condoms and tampons still dotted the shoreline when Mark visited with the CBC reporter yesterday.
CBC and Mark were visiting the “scene of the crime,” with Mark explaining where he found the sewage debris and why Waterkeeper is investigating this issue in the first place.
Marilyn Bell, the famed open water swimmer who was first to cross Lake Ontario, alerted CBC to the issue in an open letter she wrote about sewage pollution in Toronto.
We are outraged that it is so easy to find condoms and tampons floating around in our Lake Ontario.
“It makes me want to puke,” one water user told CBC.
But our motivation isn’t outrage. Our motivation is a desire to protect the lake so Torontonians can lead healthy lives.
That’s why we brought the boat to Toronto in the first place: to collect water samples, monitor for sewage debris and plastics pollution, and share our findings with the thousands of people who use the harbour.
Our goal is to keep water users safe, improve water quality reporting, and make sure Toronto embraces its responsibilities as a Great Lakes capital.
There’s an old trope that Torontonians are cut off from Lake Ontario. That we have turned our backs on the lake. That the Gardiner Expressway, Lakeshore Boulevard, or lines of condos create a barrier that keeps residents away from the water.
It’s not true.
The Toronto waterfront is packed with people, especially out on the water. On our boat patrols this summer, we’ve seen more people paddling and sailing than sitting at beaches, even on hot days.
And those lines of condos? People want to live there because the views of the lake are stunning. Those waterfront skyscrapers aren’t a barrier to public access. They are a form of public access.
This is where cultures are clashing.
Fifty years ago, people were willing to tolerate pollution. They wrote off Lake Ontario. “It’s a working lake,” they’d say as they wrinkled up their noses and fled for cottage country.
That’s not possible anymore. Cottage country is out of reach for most people, yet more of us want to be by the water than ever before. They want to go to the lake right here in their own backyards. And they want it to be clean.
In the last decade, the number of Ontarians who have spent time near the water or at a beach has doubled. Toronto helped to make that possible.
Starting in the 1980s, Toronto invested in infrastructure improvements, with financial assistance and regulatory pressure from the province and federal government. That work helped to make places like Woodbine Beach swimmable again. It helped to bring people back to the lake.
Now, population growth, climate change, and sluggish investment in infrastructure are fuelling concerns about sewage pollution. We are seeing tampons and condoms and sewage in the lake, where we should be seeing fish and birds and people.
This time, there is no cottage country escape. There is only Lake Ontario. And Toronto needs to rise to the occasion.
People need more information
Beach goers can be confident that the red/ green flags they see tell them what water quality was like yesterday morning when samples were collected. But for the thousands of people who are kayak-rolling and windsurfing their way around Toronto, water quality is a total mystery.
“How is Lake Ontario doing? Is it clean or dirty? Are the Great Lakes getting better or worse?” people ask us constantly.
Those are tough questions to answer. Water quality is like the weather – it's always changing.
There are stunningly beautiful days on the water, like the one I had yesterday.
Then there are stories of eye infection (Toronto Island, last weekend) and condom sightings that make Lake Ontario sound like a terrible place, one to be avoided at all costs.
Only 3% of the city’s waterfront is actually tested for water quality. All those locations are beaches. None are in the inner harbour.
With more than 200 water-based organizations in the downtown area alone, getting better information about water quality to the public should be the top priority on the waterfront.
It’s been more than two years since we first asked the City of Toronto to start alerting the public when wet weather, bypasses, or sewage spills may affect water quality. We’ve been told the new alerts system is coming any day now... our fingers are crossed.
The next step, of course, is to increase water quality monitoring in Toronto. When water meets government standards, then let’s enjoy the harbour. When water doesn’t meet government standards, let’s make sure our friends and family are kept healthy. It’s not rocket science. It’s city building.
Toronto’s waterfront has come a long way in the last 20 years. We can’t let up now.
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