Swim Drink Fish Canada has been engaging the public in education and advocacy, raising awareness about combined sewer overflows for almost 20 years.
During the unprecedented summer of 2020, those seeking respite gathered at beaches across Canada to find solace in their home waterbodies.
Travel restrictions meant many people were exploring their local waters, some for the first time. They were discovering that beautiful beaches and serene shorelines were not always a transatlantic flight away… these natural havens were right there in their own communities. We believe that those who have discovered or rediscovered their connections to their local waters will continue to visit them with the same enthusiasm for many summers to come.
However, as more people visit Canadian beaches, there is a growing potential for them to become sick after coming into contact with contaminated wastewater from combined sewer overflow (CSO) events. The cities of Kingston, Sudbury, and Vancouver have real-time sewage monitoring systems that alert the public when wastewater is discharged into the environment, but currently, they are the only Canadian municipalities that supply this essential public health information.
As more and more of us interact with the Great Lakes, we need to understand how CSOs threaten both our local waters and our own health. Swim Drink Fish is filling this gap in public education. We have established five community-based recreational water monitoring programs across Canada, four on the Great Lakes and one in Vancouver on False Creek. We have an incredibly dedicated team of citizen scientists who have learned to recognize indicators of overflow events and sewage through their time spent with us by the water. We worked with these incredible citizen scientists to learn the best ways to educate local communities about CSOs. Swim Drink Fish also contributed to and is proud to share Ottawa Riverkeeper's CSO Toolkit published in 2018.
Our next step was to set out and train a team of sewage investigators across the country.
So far we have conducted two webinars: The Impact of Sewage in the Great Lakes with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, and The Impact of Sewage in Vancouver with Fraser Riverkeeper. Almost 150 people attended, which is evidence that people are engaged with their local waterways. The interest and feedback from attendees highlighted that even within the Swim Drink Fish movement there still is a lot to be learned about CSOs.
“What can we do about it?” “How can we help?”
We demonstrated how people can report pollution using Gassy, our photo submission tool that uses AI to identify water pollution. Gassy makes it easy for citizen scientists to remotely contribute to our growing database of water health information. We encouraged people to alert their local public health unit about illnesses resulting from swimming or coming in contact with the water. We also shared the government portal for the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations Reported Data, showing people where they could access information about their communities. These webinars expanded our team of dedicated citizen scientists, training more people to become aware of and able to recognize sewage.
Stay tuned for more webinars in other cities to come.
Education and awareness are only the first steps we are taking to protect and restore our waters. We will continue to talk about the issue and lead webinars for other parts of the country, as well as offer a detailed look at the Model Sewage Alert Policy. And as awareness of the issues facing our waters grows, we can continue to achieve meaningful change.
With a country full of investigators trained to recognize, track, and report CSO pollution, we can promote stronger municipal advocacy and action. Real-time monitoring and public notifications are some of the first steps municipalities need to take to reduce the direct impact combined sewer overflow events have on the community watersheds that mean so much to all of us.