Our phone has been ringing off the hook with questions about Toronto's waterfront - specifically, what's going on with the brown water. Here's some basic information, compiled by Gabrielle Parent-Doliner, Krystyn Tully, Mark Mattson to help you understand what's happening.
Q: What's making the water brown?
A: Torontonians have reported chocolate-coloured water in the Toronto Harbour since the June 22-23 storm. The water inside the harbour is most likely a combination of combined sewage overflows, which release sewage into the harbour during heavy storms, and contaminated runoff from the Don River. The sewage overflows are located underwater in most of the slips along Queen’s Quay. Waterkeeper posted aerial photos to our Toronto Recreational Water Users Facebook page showing a combined sewer emptying into the Rees Street slip.
The brown water outside of the harbour is a mix of runoff from the Humber River, bypassed waste from the Humber Wastewater Treatment plant, and stormwater. The Humber runoff and bypass generally flows along the outside of the Toronto Islands. Historically, the plume of contamination has been observed as far east as Ajax.
Q: Do you know that the wastewater treatment plants have bypassed?
A: Yes. The Humber Wastewater Treatment Plant bypassed sewage for more than 10 hours straight, from 5pm Saturday until 4am Sunday. The Ashbridges Bay facility bypassed sewage for nearly 11 hours in a row June 27-28, 2015, and for an additional 30 minutes on Sunday.
This is the 6th bypass this month from Ashbridges Bay, and the 5th from Humber. The plants have bypassed after every rainfall this month.
This information was reported to our staff when we contact the plant directly after it rains. We publish our findings to a bypass log on our website.
Q: Why is it so bad?
A: Heavy and frequent rains. Unseasonably wet weather hit much of Southern Ontario in late June, 2015:
- 30 to 50mm of rain fell on the GTA from June 27th to June 28th
- 110 millimetres of rain fell in Toronto June 22-23.
- That’s a combined total of up to 160 mm of rain in one week.
- The entire month of June usually only sees 70mm of rain.
Q: Is this contamination a problem?
A: Yes. Sewage-polluted waters can contain all kinds pathogens, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals that can lead to illness and infection. There are increased health risks associated with contact with contaminated water. The bacteria, viruses, protozoa, can cause diseases and infections ranging in severity. Gastroenteritis, ear, nose, and throat infections, and rashes are the more common repercussions to contact with contaminated water. More severe health outcomes include cholera, dysentery, infectious hepatitis, and severe gastroenteritis.
Sewage and stormwater pollution is also harmful to aquatic life. The standards for protection of swimmers and recreational water users are identical to the standards for the protection of fish, plants, and other life in the lake. Even if humans avoid contact with recreational waters, this pollution will have an impact on the natural environment.
Q: Does it impact drinking water?
A: Toronto gets its drinking water from Lake Ontario. The body of the average adult is 60% Lake Ontario (more if you’re a kid). City filtration plants remove most contaminants from the water before it reaches your tap and adds chlorine eliminating bacteria.
While Lake Ontario Waterkeeper promotes consumption of tap water, we also note that the growing number of chemicals discharged into the lake with our sewage are impacting drinking water quality. Recent studies show that trace amounts of painkillers, blood thinners, hormones, chemotherapy agents, even cocaine and amphetamines remain in our drinking water, even after treatment. This is a growing concern.
Q: Does the city notify the public?
A. No, currently the City of Toronto does not proactively issue public alerts when sewage is bypassed from its wastewater treatment facilities. Nor does the city issue rain advisories to the public.
The city does report bypasses to the Ministry of the Environment, but those reports are not released to the general public except through the formal information request process.
Q: What does the city advise?
The City instructs the public to rely on beach water quality reports. Green flags mean a beach is open for swimming. Red flags mean swimming is not advised.
Waterkeeper notes that there are two problems with this approach:
- Sample results are always at least 24-hours out of date, because bacteria needs to be incubated to be tested
- Water is only tested at the city’s 11 official beaches, yet thousands of people are paddling, sailing, swimming, and boating in other places on the Toronto waterfront (including the Pan Am games participants)
Q: What is the "48-hour rule"?
The City of Toronto typically tests its 11 official beaches on a daily basis during the summer months. Beach test results are not a perfect indicator of current water quality. They take 24 hours, so they are always a day behind.
Most urban cities in North America also advise residents to stay out of the water for 48 hours after it rains; that helps protect you from pollution that entered the lake between the time samples were collected and the time water quality results are available.
Q: What's going on with city beaches today?
A: Information released by the City of Toronto at 2:30 pm on June 29th, based on limited results from June 28th shows that some beaches met water quality standards yesterday while others have been pre-emptively posted with warnings:
- Advisory issued but no water quality results available (3 of 11 beaches): Marie Curtis Park, Centre, Rouge
- Meets water quality standards (5 of 11 beaches): Hanlan’s, Wards, Cherry, Woodbine, Kew-Balmy,
- Fails to meet water quality standards (2 of 11 beaches): Sunnyside, Bluffers
- No advisory issued but no water quality results available (1 of 11 beaches): Gibraltar
Q: What are Ontario’s beach water quality standards?
A: For recreational waters to meet Ontario water quality standards, the geometric mean of 5 samples cannot exceed 100 E.coli/100ml water. In the U.S., there is also a “single sample maximum” which offers recreational water users additional protection.
Q: How can I minimize risks to my health?
A: Waterkeeper has 5 tips for protecting your health while swimming or boating in the lakes:
- Check Swim Guide for water quality status before heading the beach.
- Always avoid recreational water activities for at least 48 hours after heavy rainfall, as there will elevated levels of contaminants in the water.
- Avoid recreational water activities near the mouths of creeks and rivers, sewage outfalls, and areas of runoff as these spots will have increased levels of contaminants.
- Steer clear of algae.
- Bacteria loves flat, shallow, and stagnant water. Avoid swimming in smelly water.