From 2013 to 2017, 890 million cubic metres of untreated sewage and wastewater effluent was released from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into 844 different waterbodies across Canada. For some context, this equates to untreated sewage flowing over Niagara Falls for 3.7 days, or 88.8 hours. This also means it could fill everyone's bathtub in Canada 148 times. So how do we have such precise numbers? And why is it important to have this information open to the public?
Where the numbers comes from
This information comes from recently published data on Canada’s Open Government Portal. In 2018, Swim Drink Fish submitted a formal request to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to release data in relation to sewage pollution in Canada on the Open Government Portal. The release of this data would provide free, on-demand access to machine readable data files for sewage pollution nationwide. On November 25th, 2019 ECCC released this data that was gathered under Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (WSER). This release sets an important precedent publishing other environmental regulatory data for public consumption.
WSER came into effect in 2012 under the Fisheries Act to help manage wastewater releases by systems that collect an average daily influent volume of 100 cubic metres or more. These regulations relate specifically to subsection 36 in the Act, which is the key pollution prevention provision, that prohibits the deposit of deleterious substances like sewage and wastewater effluent into waters frequented by fish. The work done by ECCC to release this data provides a framework for publishing other environmental regulatory data to the Open Government Portal.
Turning the Curve on Combined Sewer Overflows
Why are these publicly available datasets so important? Open data are the building blocks of open knowledge. According to the Open Knowledge Foundation open data is vital for information transparency and scientific advancement. Open data means everyone including scientists, policy-makers, non-profits, and the public has access to the same raw materials. The information and knowledge contained in the WSER datasets are key to turning the curve on Combined Sewer Overflows across Canada. The WSER data contains information on when and where sewage is released, and whether wastewater treatment facilities are meeting regulations as they relate to the Fisheries Act.
Information Contained in the WSER Data
Four different reports were released on the Open Government Portal, all with very important information enclosed:
- The Identification Report. This dataset contains detailed information on all the wastewater treatment facilities across Canada. The information ranges from the average volume of effluent deposited per day from wastewater systems, whether the effluent is deposited in water frequented by fish, and also a description of use of water at the discharge point (i.e. recreation like swimming, fishing, boating…).
- The Acute Lethality Report. This dataset reports on whether the effluent released from wastewater treatment facilities passed/failed the acutely lethal test for rainbow trout. The Acute Lethality test was developed specifically for determining the acute lethality of effluent from industrial and wastewater facilities.This test is used across Canada by the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to monitor and control industrial and wastewater effluent.
- The Monitoring Report. This report contains information on water quality, including results of effluent testing under the Fisheries Act. It tells us whether the effluent released by wastewater treatment facilities is below the accepted limit for suspended solids (SS) and carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand (CBOD). Both SS and CBOD should not exceed 25 mg/L according to section 6(1) of the Fisheries Act.
- The Combined Sewer Overflow Report. This report contains detailed information about CSOs for all cities in Canada with combined sewer systems (excluding the province of Quebec). The data contains the estimated volume of sewage released on a monthly basis at specified combined sewer outfall locations. The report contains the latitude and longitude for all combined sewer outfalls across Canada. In all, this report provides all the information we need to know when and where, and the amount of sewage released into waterbodies across Canada.
According to Environment Canada, wastewater is one of the largest sources of surface water pollution in the country. The information contained in these datasets is an important step for Turning the Curve on combined sewer overflows and wastewater pollution in Canada. The knowledge that can be gained from these 4 datasets helps everyone tackle sewage and wastewater problems at both a local and national level. To download all of the reports listed above visit: https://open.canada.ca/data/en/dataset/9e11e114-ef0d-4814-8d93-24af23716489
Story photo by Flavia Lopez. This photo illustrates one of the impacts of sewage pollution from combined sewer overflows in the City of Toronto. In the photo you can see items that are flushed down the toilet including wet wipes and feminine hygiene products.
Imagine watching the water rush over Niagara Falls for a full 24-hours. Now imagine it wasn’t water at all…imagine it was raw sewage. That is how much sewage was dumped into Canadian waterways in 2017. That’s 270 million cubic metres.
Where does this sewage come from? Either areas that offer no treatment, so it just flows (if that’s the word) untreated into our water bodies, or from combined sewer overflows – sewer systems that combine both wastewater and stormwater, and when they hit their maximum levels, they overflow.
We all intuitively understand that sewage is yucky. Nobody is excited to swim, paddle or fish in sewage-affected waters. And, as you can imagine, untreated sewage wreaks havoc on water quality, and can include a who’s who list of contaminants including all kinds of bacteria (like E.Coli), viruses (like Giardia) and parasites which can make people and animals sick—and may even be lethal. It is also very high in phosphorus and nitrogen, contributing to nutrient pollution that can drive toxic algal blooms.
Though this news is not great for our waters, it is a win that Statistics Canada is now publishing the information on a new public access portal. The data shows that BC is leading the nation in total sewage released into waterways (both CSOs and untreated discharges), followed by Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Looking at Combine Sewer Overflows alone, Quebec leads the nation, followed by British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario.
But thanks to the work of Our Living Waters Network members, there are solutions to our combined sewer overflow problems. Check out the toolkit "Tackling Combined Sewer Overflows" developed by Ottawa Riverkeeper.
On the positive side, let’s look at what a few communities are doing to solve the combine sewer overflow problem:
- The City of Ottawa is currently building a Combined Sewage Storage Tunnel, a storage facility designed to hold up to 43 million litres of sewage and stormwater. The tunnel is intended to create more capacity for combined sewers, which would take pressure off existing infrastructure in times of heavy precipitation and therefore decrease instances of overflow events. Notwithstanding this project, it would not have prevented at least nine CSO events in 2017, which generated more volume than the tunnel can hold. The tunnel, which will be operational in 2020, should stop CSOs in all but extreme weather events.
- Although the scope of the CSOs is particularly daunting in Vancouver, there is work underway to address the issue. For example, Metro Vancouver (the regional government consisting of 22 member municipalities) is slowly separating stormwater sewers from wastewater sewers, with the goal to eliminate all CSOs by the year 2050. They are prioritizing sewers that are the worst offenders. They have also required all 22 member municipalities to adopt Integrated Stormwater Management Plans, which include actions like integrating green infrastructure into land-use planning in order to minimize runoff that makes its way to sewer systems in the first place. The City of Vancouver is also in the process of developing a Rain City Strategy, with the goal of minimizing runoff by capturing and cleaning 90% of rainwater that falls in the city.
While solutions need to be enacted in these specific places, it is ultimately a national challenge. One that OLW Network members are committed to turn the curve on (ending Canada’s sewage pollution problem is a priority for the OLW Network).
If you are driving solutions to Canada’s sewage pollution problem or are looking to collaborate with those who are, please reach out so we can connect you with like-minded organizations.
In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This global agenda aims to catalyze actions necessary for humans to live sustainably with each other and the planet by focusing on a variety of thematic areas including people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. To inspire action, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been developed and specific targets and indicators have been created under each goal to measure progress.
While reaching the SDGs is going to take many organizations all across the world, for each individual organization, it means understanding the important part we play in the larger picture.
The work of the Our Living Waters Network - and the OLW shared measurement system, which drives many of the collaborative actions we take - is well aligned with many of the SDGs. In particular SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, but also with specific targets and indicators within SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG 14: Life Below Water, SDG 15: Life on Land, and SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals.
We know many organizations, from governments to non-profit organizations, funders to businesses, are actively determining how to achieve the SDGs, and as a member of the OLW Network, we invite you to explore our handy guide: Our Living Waters and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which demonstrates how the OLW shared measurement system, and much of the work that you do, helps achieve these SDGs. We hope you will find this guide useful if you are looking to demonstrate how your activities contribute to the SDGs.
Taking a step back, the guide also shows how the OLW shared measurement system provides an excellent roadmap on how to achieve many parts of the SDGs, especially SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, within the Canadian context, allowing us all to play our important part in the larger picture.
In 2018, we were excited to launch our second round of grants under the Our Living Waters 2030 Fund. In total $97,000 were distributed to Our Living Waters member groups to collaboratively advance progress on at least one of our 24 impact measures. Priorities for the fund were established directly by our members through an annual survey which helps us align member focus across our impact measures given limited funding dollars. (Not an OLW Network member yet? Sign up here).
It’s amazing what a little bit can do! With these funds, Our Living Waters Network members are now working towards the following inspiring outcomes:
- Positioning fresh water as a priority issue in the lead up to the federal election;
- Working toward renewal of the Canada Water Act with Indigenous and non-indigenous partners;
- Advancing the launch of data hubs in the Columbia, Atlantic and Lake Winnipeg regions;
- Providing tools and support for communities to address sewage problems in their watershed;
- Working with 18 communities across Canada to advance adoption of transformative green infrastructure programs;
- Supporting indigenous representation at the 2018 Living Waters Rally; and
- Helping support 75 water leaders attend a national community based monitoring round-table in Ottawa to advance federal support for citizen science initiatives.
Want to read about the fantastic accomplishments Network members have already made with 2017 grants from the OLW 2030 Fund? Check out these impact stories and be ready to be inspired!
These stories all highlight that together we can make a difference. Thank you to all members of the freshwater community for doing what you do!
“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.
Thanks to our members for completing our 2018 Our Living Waters Priorities survey. 77% responded, giving us confidence that these priorities are truly reflective of OLW Network members.
Here’s a summary of what you told us.Read more