By now, you already know that a record-high amount of rain landed on the City of Toronto on Monday, July 8, 2013. In just two hours, we received a month's worth of rainfall. We had more rain in 7 hours than the infamous Hurricane Hazel brought back in 1954. That storm killed 81 people and forced Ontarians to rethink the way we build up urban areas near the water.
What you might not know is that many of the photos from the storm, the ones of people jumping in rain-filled park lagoons or wading through submerged streets, were not just photos of lots of rain. They were also photos of lots of sewage.
It's yucky, but it's true: Toronto's sewage system was overwhelmed by the record rainfall. Much of what Torontonians flushed down the toilet that day never made it to a sewage treatment plant. Instead, our sewage went into our basements. Our rivers. Our lakes. Our streets. Our parks.
This is not the first time Toronto's sewage system failed. Our sewer pipes dump untreated sewage into the lake and the Don River weekly. Our sewage treatment plants bypass partially treated sewage once every month or so. The City knows it is a problem, and that's why they are spending more than $1-billion to try to make things better.
Infrastructure upgrades take decades. We want you to be safe in the meantime.
You should know that bacteria levels at Toronto's beaches shot up to 9, 10, times the levels they were at before the storms came. We don't know what the water quality was like right here in the city. No one was sampling in Trinity Bellwoods park where people played otter and slid down muddy slopes into the sewage lagoon below. No one was sampling on the Don River where exhausted commuters waded through chest-high river and sewer water to get to safety.
We don't expect people to head out with sample bottles in the midst of the storm, but we do want to spread the word that city waters might not be safe to touch for a while. Raging torrents and high water levels aside, our rivers and waterfront have been just plain dirty since Monday night.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper staff will be suspending regular office work on Friday to go and collect water samples at some of the city's most popular waterside locations. We'll be checking for E. coli to try to learn more about the current state of the city's waterways. Most bacteria only lives in the natural environment for a few days, so we are hoping that water conditions will be starting to improve. We will post our sample results, along with the City of Toronto's updates, as soon as they are available.
In the meantime, if you are going to be near the water this weekend, here is what you need to know:
1. The best beach in the city to visit is Bluffer's Park. Because it is far from sewer pipes and river mouths, it is less exposed to pollution. Water quality test results from the city this week have been consistently good.
2. If you are going into the water, check for cloudiness, musty smells, or floating debris. Bacteria pollution isn't something you can smell or see, but the silty, stinky floodwaters are your biggest issue right now, apply this rule of thumb: if you can't see your toes under the water, don't go swimming.
3. If you are a paddler, don't think you're safe! Spray and splashes in your eyes, ears, nose and throat may carry more concentrated levels of bacteria than regular beach water.
4. Check the beach water quality before you head out. We updated Swim Guide as soon as government monitoring data is available: www.theswimguide.org.
5. If you see something that worries you, please file a pollution report. We'll look into it within 24 hours (yep, even on the weekend).
Stay safe. We'll update you with more information as soon as it is available.