“One trillion litres of sewage leaked into Canadian lakes and rivers over last five years”. Such was the jaw-dropping headline that spurred national media coverage of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) this summer.
Not surprisingly, we heard from many shocked Canadians. How did they not know this was happening? How could 21st-century Canadian cities still be releasing untreated sewage into their waterways at such a massive scale? And what can be done to fix this? For many years, we’ve been asking ourselves those very questions. With help from the Our Living Waters 2030 Fund, we set out to begin answering them.
Why haven’t most people heard about the magnitude of CSOs in Canada? Or if they have, why was it from the news media and not from the municipalities where they swim, drink and fish?
The answer, in short, is lack of transparency.
Municipalities in Canada are required to report CSO occurrences annually to the federal government. Most do (although several remain non-compliant), but that information never makes it into the public realm unless municipalities themselves choose to release it—which is a rare occurrence indeed. That’s why we’ve been working to have Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (WSER) data published on the Open Government Portal.
So what can we do to fix a problem that’s happening at such a massive scale (remember—that's one trillion litres)? One thing that has become clear is that no one group can tackle this issue nationally with a cookie-cutter approach. Indeed, each of the 269 Canadian municipalities where CSOs occur has a unique set of circumstances. Local community groups and well-informed decision-makers may be the best placed to shine a spotlight on the issue and press for change. It’s with these groups in mind that we developed a comprehensive, bilingual resource called Tacking Combined Sewer Overflows: A Toolkit for Community Action.
Based on lessons learned by Ottawa Riverkeeper and others, as well as the successful reduction of CSOs in the City of Ottawa in recent years, the toolkit provides a roadmap for community groups and proactive decision-makers who are keen to make a difference in their community. Already viewed nearly 800 times in the first two weeks after publication, we look forward to continuing to distribute and promote the toolkit and its roadmap.