Case - Toronto Sewage Bypass Alerts

The name “Toronto” is a Huron word meaning “fishing weir”. This city is criss-crossed by 300 km of creeks and rivers and has 138 km of shoreline, including the islands.

As the largest city in Canada, Toronto generates a lot of sewage. The people who designed the city’s sewage treatment system - like many others in their time - designed a system that allows sewage to overflow into creeks, rivers, and Lake Ontario.

As the city’s population grew and most rain-absorbing greenspace has been paved, rain and snow overwhelm the system more than once a week. When this happens, wastewater escapes into the natural environment (or back into your basement) or is intentionally released to the lake by treatment plant operators.

Because the pipes and our waterways are connected, illegal and poorly-built plumbing also direct sewage into the lake instead of to a treatment plant.

Toronto’s sewage problem has been common knowledge for decades. Some Waterkeeper’s earliest field work involved walking Toronto’s shoreline looking for leaking sewage pipes.

We started to realize the scale of the problem in 2011 when the international Commission for Environmental Cooperation released a report naming Toronto’s Ashbridge’s Bay wastewater treatment plant the #1 surface water polluter in North America.

Then in July 2013, massive amounts of rain fell on Toronto, overwhelmed city infrastructure, and knocked out power to at least one wastewater treatment plant. The city released 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.

The City of Toronto will spend close to $1.5-billion in the coming decades to improve the network of pipes underneath city streets.

In the meantime, we think the city can do more to keep the public informed when water quality emergencies happen.

In July 2014, Waterkeeper called for the City of Toronto to notify the public for all sewage bypasses and combined sewer overflows. We made our case in a formal application under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights.

In August 2015, the Ontario Ministry of Environment responded. The ministry decided that the City of Toronto should start issuing communications to the public about water quality following all wet weather events.

The ministry also decided that Toronto will report details about bypass events at wastewater treatment plants to the public in real-time.

In June 2017—nearly three years after Waterkeeper’s submission —Toronto began to provide public notifications in real time for bypasses. The city issues bypass alerts through the @311Toronto Twitter account, notifying whenever a bypass has begun, which plant is having the bypass, and when the bypass has ended.

Our work on sewage spills generated so much interest from Toronto residents that Waterkeeper began testing Harbour waters regularly and posting the results to Swim Guide.

Click here to see our Toronto Harbour Monitoring page.