Another heavy rainfall, another sewage spill into the Ottawa River. It’s becoming a habit.
At least this time, city staff addressed the problem quickly and told authorities, bureaucrats and council promptly. A control mechanism at Booth Street had jammed due to debris, letting sewage pour into the river.
But that’s not the end of it. About 730,000 cubic metres of sewage and storm water drained into the river last year because old combined sewage pipes overwhelm treatment facilities during heavy storms. Ottawa is not alone in Ontario, or for that matter North America, in these sewage incidents. Old infrastructure, that doesn’t separate sewage from storm water, is the culprit.
Nevertheless, staff is addressing the stuck gates by purchasing new equipment and installing sensors to tell when a sewage leak is occurring. This is an improvement over the attitude that allowed a stuck gate to drain 960,000 cubic metres of sewage and storm water into the river in 2006.
That wasn’t reported to the province until the following year, while city officials and councillors learned about it two years after the incident. That’s unacceptable and an employee was fired.
However, there are bigger issues here than just stuck gates. If we are to treat our rivers as great recreational and drinking-water resources, we can’t use them as sewers.
Storm water and sewage must be kept in separate pipes or treated before they flow into the river for appreciable water improvement. And, depending on the type of solution, this will require at least tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvement, if not more.
We need to plan our city better to reduce the amount of runoff into rivers. In the countryside, rain typically drains into the ground where it is naturally filtered. In cities, water strikes pavement where it is directed into the sewer system and sent directly to rivers.
With it goes all the gas, oil and chemicals that are spilled on roads and parking lots, plus a witches brew of organic and non-organic pollutants that come with living in an urban environment. Ottawans must consider when they build the environmental consequences of having all this concrete and asphalt.
There are examples of doing things right here. Mountain Equipment Co-op has a gravel parking lot that allows rainwater to drain into the ground rather than directly into the Ottawa River. That’s smart building.
Our rivers are wonderful assets. But Westboro Beach has been closed 12 of 29 days with some astronomical E. coli levels. Through infrastructure neglect, Ottawa is losing its beaches.
Infrastructure problems aren’t confined to sewage. In many parts of Ontario and North America, the aging electrical grid could cost billions to upgrade.
If automakers get serious about producing plug-in hybrids, those cars will sap power from the grid when drivers arrive home—right at the peak electrical usage period around dinner time. That’s going to strain Ontario’s power system, a system that right now can just barely meet the province’s needs.
We have built billions of dollars of infrastructure, and we need to take care of it.