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.
Until the City of Toronto begins to alert the public when a sewage bypass occurs, our Swimmable Water Ambassadors will call the Humber Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment plant for this information and share it here.
On September 23, 2016, Waterkeepers of the Great Lakes Region, including Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and Swim Guide, signed onto comments for the “Public Notification for Combined Sewer Overflows in the Great Lakes."
Wet weather alerts are coming to Toronto! Following a year-long investigation, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change says that the public should receive more information about water quality following heavy rains and snow melts. Even partially-treated sewage in the water means that people who are paddling, surfing, and boating could get sick - and they don’t even know it. Government monitoring showed elevated levels of bacteria offshore in Lake Ontario. Expect to see Toronto’s new communications kick-in soon.
On July 7, 2014, Mark Mattson and Krystyn Tully of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper filed a request to the province of Ontario to bring sewage bypass alerts to Toronto. If successful, Torontonians would be alerted every time the city dumps sewage into public waters (about three times a month). Here's our case.
Changes to city by-law would make it easier for Toronto industry to flush arsenic, mercury, lead, PCBs and other nasty pollutants down the drain. When the city’s system overflows - like it did on Wednesday night - these pollutants end up in Lake Ontario.