Massive amounts of rain fell on Toronto in one hour back in July, 2013. The deluge overwhelmed city infrastructure and knocked out power to at least one wastewater treatment plant. The city dumped more than 1-billion litres of raw sewage into Lake Ontario in a single day.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper responded to the flood by sampling recreational water spots around the city and working with local media to alert the public about water quality problems.
It took a week for Toronto’s waterways to return to normal conditions. It took four years to get the City of Toronto to issue better water quality advisories to residents.
As of fall 2017, we are declaring “Case Closed” on the Toronto sewage bypass alerts file. Earlier this summer, the City started actively reminding residents about the link between wet weather and water quality. When wastewater treatment plants bypass, they post a notice to Twitter. And they have created a website with information that explains to the public why bypasses happen and summarizes monthly bypass events.
The most recent sewage bypass happened on August 4. Here’s what the City posted:
These alerts come several years after Waterkeeper first submitted our legal request to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.
So what’s next for us?
Working on the Toronto case taught us how urgent it is to improve respect for the public’s “right to know” about sewage spills.
Bypasses at wastewater treatment plants are reported to the province, but not the public. We are looking at ways to change that.
When raw sewage comes from outfalls in the Toronto Harbour, there is no monitoring and no public warning; that’s why Waterkeeper launched our Harbour monitoring program in 2016.
Many other communities were inspired by the work being done in Toronto, so we are developing a “model” sewage spill alert. This will describe the best way to communicate sewage spill information to the public so that any community, anywhere can adopt it.