Every time it rains in downtown Toronto, the harbour turns a distinct shade of murky brown. Same thing in Kingston, Belleville, and Hamilton. It's a tired sight, familiar and repulsive all at once.
Aging sewage overflows are not the only problem, though. Younger cities and suburban areas once considered more pristine than gritty downtown cores are experiencing similar declines in water quality. Pesticides, the contents of swimming pools, discarded household chemicals and other nasty toxins are dumped into our sewer systems with alarming regularity. As a result, Lake Ontario suffers.
Stormwater pollution is a nightmare of an environmental issue for government in Ontario. It affects all levels of government. It costs a lot of money to fix. And there is no single, "bad guy" or culprit to shoulder the blame.
Overlapping jurisdictions makes it easy for all levels of government to pass the buck and to come under fire when they try to be proactive. Many cities in Ontario are passing pesticides by-laws, using the limited power of a municipality to keep toxic chemicals out of our waterways. When they do, a powerful, industry-funded pro-pesticide lobby inevitably challenges their authority. Fortunately, such legal challenges rarely succeed.
The Province of Ontario is responsible for making sure that every person or corporation operating within its borders complies with its environmental laws. The Environmental Protection Act and the Ontario Water Resources Act both state that no one can dump toxins into the water. These laws are most effective in deterring municipalities from operating polluting sewer systems in the first place. They can encourage cities to make sure everything coming out of its pipes is clean, while cities can use by-laws to encourage citizens and corporations to ensure everything going into the pipes is clean.
In the past, Ontario has hesitated to impose water quality standards on cities. When Environment Hamilton brought their city's leaking pipes to the Ministry of Environment's attention, the MOE issued clean up orders ... and then quietly withdrew them some months later. And when Kingston's sewage washed up on a nearby island after a heavy rainstorm, the MOE refused to lay charges or to order the city to ward against future bypasses. The Canadian Environmental Law Association and Waterkeeper have vigorously protested this decision.
Municipalities, too, have problems making lofty laws work in everyday life. Big polluters usually buy their way out of complying with strict municipal by-laws, paying cities to violate the rules with impunity.
While law enforcement has languished, public education efforts have raised awareness of stormwater issues to an all-time high. Effective programs have been implemented by a number of NGO and government organizations all around the lake, encouraging the public to recycle rainwater, keep chemicals out of stormdrains, abandon pesticides, and clean up after their pets.
With such broad public support for better stormwater management, it's time to branch out. To solve the stormwater crisis, we need a variety of approaches: a combination of carrots and sticks coming from all directions, reminding government and citizens that stormwater is an urgent problem, a fixable problem, and a legal problem.
That murky brown harbour water is a constant reminder: it doesn't have to be this way. To solve the problem, we need more grassroots organizations, citizens, corporations, and governments focused on a single goal: make it safe to swim, and drink, and fish from Lake Ontario every single day of the year.