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.
In 2017, the first working year of the Our Living Waters Network, Green Communities Canada and the Canadian Freshwater Alliance collaborated to explore how green infrastructure was transforming the way rain and stormwater was being managed in our communities. 40 communities across the country, varying in size, completed a self-assessment on stormwater and green infrastructure.
Unfortunately, the results reinforced our suspicion that we have a ways to go. Although many communities have pilot projects that use green infrastructure to help manage stormwater, few have evolved to integrating these solutions as central components in their communities’ official plans.
To address this gap and help turn the curve on this OLW impact measure, the Canadian Freshwater Alliance and Green Communities Canada set up a Community of Practice to support local non-profit groups to advance uptake of green infrastructure. The goal? To grow the number of communities transforming the way rainwater is managed using green infrastructure tools and initiatives.
The project is building a network of applied practitioners working to advance green infrastructure as a key tool in freshwater health and climate resilience in communities around the country. Six groups in the Community of Practice developed local action plans that mapped out strategies and actions to transform the landscape in their respective communities with green infrastructure.
Stay tuned as these action plans get underway. We will profile work in these regions and test how they are leading to transformative green infrastructure solutions.
Want to get involved? The Community of Practice is open to new members. Contact us to find out how you can join and start driving local action for green infrastructure!
Primary tools: The Soak it up! toolkit and stormwater scorecard
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
On June 13th we hosted WWF-Canada as they launched the first comprehensive report on the health of Canada's freshwater ecosystems. 5-years in the making, this assessment reviews Canada's 25 major watersheds and 167 sub-watersheds for detailed data that together paints an important picture on the health of waters.
It may seem cliché but no saying is more true then “Water is Life”. Water unites us. It connects our communities. It fuels our economies. Unfortunately, we continue to take water for granted. Its connecting force, its fuel, its life force exists in each of our subconscious. We know its value but we don’t always (or even often) consider it in our day-to-day decision making. If we are going to make water decision-making more prominent in people’s minds, we need to bring the value of water into the forefront of our consciousness.Read more