With heavy rains last week and bacteria levels soaring in Toronto Harbour, you may be wondering: what ever happened to sewage alerts in Toronto?
In August 2015, Waterkeeper announced that Toronto residents would soon receive alerts when wet weather sends sewage and stormwater into Lake Ontario.
It’s now May 2017. It rained hard last week. Bacteria in the Toronto Harbour spiked. But a Waterkeeper blog post was the first mention of water quality concerns in the city.
So what happened? And when can you expect to see those wet weather alerts?
Soon, we hope.
The idea of an alert system first came up after massive amounts of rain fell on Toronto in two hours in July 2013. The rain overwhelmed city infrastructure and knocked out power to at least one wastewater treatment plant. More than 1-billion litres of raw sewage flowed into Lake Ontario in a single day.
The days after the storm were hot and sunny. People flocked to the water. There were no public alerts, no social media warnings, no signs or advisories informing them that sewage had been dumped into Lake Ontario and city rivers. Meanwhile, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper staff collected samples from popular recreation zones. We found E. coli levels much higher than government guidelines at places like Sunnyside Beach and the lower Humber River.
For a year, we looked at best practices for public notification on sewage spills. We drew lessons from the increasingly popular Swim Guide program, which aggregates beach water quality information from hundreds of jurisdictions in different countries.
In July 2014, one year after the storm, we submitted an Environmental Bill of Rights request for sewage bypass alerts. We focused specifically on bypasses at wastewater treatment plants because we thought it would be simple: the City of Toronto already alerts the province when a bypass happens, so all they needed to do was share this same information with the public. Once the bypass alerts were in place, we figured, we could move on to a broader sewage spill alert system that would cover sewage outfalls all around the city.
The Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate Change accepted the request for review and broadened its own recommendations to include some form of “wet weather” alert that would inform the public about combined sewage spills (raw sewage coming out of pipes) as well as bypasses (partially-treated wastewater controlled by the treatment plants).
When the MOECC issued its decision in August of 2015 (two years after the megastorm), we were thrilled.
Toronto was poised to become a leader on public notification and Great Lakes protection. That’s how we saw it.
Another year passed. We found more sewage in the Toronto Harbour and issued a video report.
Then the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, who oversees the Environmental Bill of Rights process, issued a report in which she recommended that “the MOECC work with Toronto Water to implement procedures for public notification of sewage bypass events as soon as possible.”
Fast-forward another six months to May 2017. A month’s worth of rain fell last week, on the heels of a wet April and very high water levels. Water quality suffered. And there were no alerts.
We have been told by government officials that a new City of Toronto sewage alert pilot program will be in place this summer. Last week would have been a great time to start issuing those alerts, so we asked 311 Toronto to keep the public informed. Their Twitter account began sharing alerts later that day. It’s a great start.
When we sat down in the office last week to review the timeline, we couldn’t believe it has been nearly four years since we opened the file. To recap, here’s our what we think should be done to protect public health and Lake Ontario:
- The City of Toronto should inform the public when wastewater treatment plants bypass. There should be an alert when the bypass begins and a more detailed alert when the bypass ends. This information is already being provided to the province, so it should be as simple as posting already-available information in a publicly-accessible online location.
- The City of Toronto should remind the public that we still have a sewage system that empties directly into city rivers and Lake Ontario. Wet weather and other factors can cause raw sewage to flow into the water. When it rains or when there is snow melt, people should use caution around the water.
- Ideally, sewage outfall locations would be labelled clearly so that residents know exactly where they are located.
- The City of Toronto should be monitoring more locations where residents are swimming, surfing, boating, and fishing, especially the inner harbour.
We’ve been flooded (no pun intended) by requests from the public for more information this week. That’s great. People care.
People love the lake. They love dragonboating and surfing. They’re out there on the water right now. They have questions about the lake they love, and they need answers and information.
We’ll keep sampling the harbour. We’ll try to find ways to sample boat clubs and paddling courses. We’ll do what we can to get factual information about water quality to people on the water. And we look forward to seeing the City’s new sewage alert system in action.