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Sewage issues are top of mind in Environment Commissioner of Ontario’s Annual Report
Population growth in Ontario is raising important issues that go well beyond the loud debate about intensification vs. sprawl. As our cities grow, so too does the amount of waste we produce. Simple math says that, if we continue to manage our waste to the same standards we do today, we will continue to see an absolute growth in the amount of effluents – including nitrogen and phosphorous – loaded into our local waterways. Ottawa Riverkeeper has been calling for a halt to the unacceptable practice of dumping untreated sewage into our rivers, lakes and streams. We’re pleased to report that Ontario’s Environment Commissioner, Gordon Miller, agrees that new federal wastewater regulations are too permissive and will not adequately address our future needs.
In September 2010, the office of the Environment Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) released their final annual report and findings, which included an overview of municipal sewage troubles and the regulations tabled to address them. In the comprehensive report, Mr. Miller outlined some of the successes and shortcomings of the provinces’ efforts in environmental conservation. From the report:“Based on the available evidence – deteriorating Great Lakes water quality indicators, rising population trends and [Ministry of the Environment’s] stated priorities on municipal wastewater – the ECO believes that the status quo approach to wastewater management is not adequate for today, and certainly will not be sufficient for the coming generation” – p. 85
The report was issued following a recent update of federal wastewater regulations, which we covered here in the June issue of our electronic newsletter “Waves”. These regulations are to be brought in over the next 10 to 30 years in a manner Mr. Miller refers to as “leisurely”. The departure of Jim Prentice as Minister of the Environment also prompted a number of municipalities to express concerns over the possibility of losing some promised federal funds to help pay for sewage treatment plant upgrades to comply with the new regulations.
With an increasing population, more wastewater (and therefore more nutrients and pollutants) will be loaded into our waterways if we maintain current standards, which suggests that we must improve our water treatment processes if we are even to maintain, let alone improve, the quality of our water. Water quality along the shorelines in the Great Lakes has been steadily deteriorating more rapidly on the Ontario side than it has along the American half, a fact that is attributed to the strong regulations brought into place by the Clean Water Act, according to the report.
The ECO message is loud and clear; these new federal regulations are not going to solve wastewater problems in Ontario. The proposed regulations are not much different from those that already exist at the provincial level. The combination of the same old targets, with increasing population, plus more chemicals in our waste stream means that we need a much stronger and more proactive approach towards properly managing our waste. Further compounding the issue, the provincial government has ceased to keep detailed information about biological oxygen demand and suspended solids – key waterway ecological indicators. This makes it difficult to understand the extent to which pollutants are lingering in our waterways, and even more difficult to create a baseline index to help us understand how effective our pollution management strategies will be in the future.
On top of inadequate regulation, Ontario continues to encounter problems funding its water treatment facilities. According to Miller, Ontario’s funding is too irregular, unpredictable, and inadequate. Despite an investment of $653 million since 2007, municipalities in Ontario face an $18 billion backlog in water and sewer maintenance, with $1.3 billion of that belonging to Toronto alone.
The report was not without examples of tangible successes across the province, with the City of Guelph receiving high praise for the implementation of strict practices at their lone water treatment plant. Through better monitoring and controls, Guelph was not only able to improve the quality of effluent being released into the Speed River, but was also able to avoid building a second facility – saving millions of dollars for the municipality. The report urges other municipalities to follow in Guelph’s footsteps, and to focus on getting the most out of existing treatment facilities before jumping to create new ones. Especially in the case of plants that already meet the new federal guidelines, these kinds of improvements will go farther than anything else to improve the quality of our waterways.
Another interesting proposal from the report was to put more thought into specific circumstances where a ‘de-centralized’ approach to wastewater treatment might be more viable than the ‘centralized’ model that is common today. Though frowned upon by current federal and provincial policies, smaller-scale treatment facilities which service between 2 and 100 homes could be a logical solution for providing wastewater treatment in small communities that are not serviced by larger wastewater infrastructure. Right now, the MRC des Collines is in the midst of studying their options for wastewater treatment in the region, and this type of decentralized treatment network merits a closer look.
The report’s final recommendation is that “the Ministry of the Environment monitor and publish annual reports on the quality of municipal wastewater discharges to Ontario waterways, providing both concentrations and loadings of key pollutants”, but there are a number of other recommendations which are worth noting. (p. 87)
The Great Lakes and the Ottawa River receive “the lion’s share” of municipal effluent, and as the commissioner notes, “If the recent experience of the City of Ottawa is any guide, Ontarians have already decided it is time to put some real money on the table for swimmable, fishable, drinkable waterways.” – p. 87
We agree. It’s time to consider how to better protect our waterways by reducing the discouraging amount of pollution we dump in to our nearby rivers, lakes and streams. Let’s not forget that the choices we make in this generation, greatly affect the next.