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 - chose to send surplus sewage into creeks, rivers, and Lake Ontario.
Now that the city’s population has grown and much of its rain-absorbing greenspace has been paved, rain and snow overwhelm the system. 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 or poorly-built plumbing can also send sewage to the lake unintentionally.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has known about Toronto’s sewage problem since we started our work in 2001. It’s been common knowledge for decades. Some of our 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 mean time, we think the city can do more to keep the public informed when water quality emergencies happen. Our research shows that large amounts of wastewater overwhelm the system about once a month, yet the media and the general public are not formally notified.
That’s why Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is developing a model policy to inform Torontonians every time there is a sewage bypass. The City of Kingston adopted a similar policy in 2005 following a joint Application for Review from Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and Canadian Environmental Law Association. This is an effective tool under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights to encourage government to review or adopt a policy to protect public health and the environment.
The infrastructure and environmental problems associated with sewage pollution take years to fix. The human health threat can - and should - be addressed before the next swimming season starts.
The policy would protect everyone who uses Toronto’s waterways, particularly paddlers and rowers who use the water away from regularly monitored official beaches.
In March 2015, the MOE notified Lake Ontario Waterkeeper that they had extended their review of Toronto's sewage bypass notifications to June 30, 2015.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment confirmed in a decision released late on August 4, 2015 that wet weather events have an impact on water quality in Lake Ontario.
The Ministry decided that the City of Toronto will start issuing communications to the public about water quality following all wet weather events.
The Ministry has also decided that Toronto will report details about bypass events at wastewater treatment plants to the public in real-time.
These changes are expected to take place in the coming months.
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.
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.
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 to help you understand what's happening. (Spoiler alert: it's sewage).
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.