By Mark Mattson, Founder and President of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper

Last year at this time I was sitting in my living room watching the heavy rains through the window. I kept thinking about Toronto’s antiquated sewage system. I knew that the rains would overwhelm the sewers. I calculated that at least a billion litres of sewage was flowing into my Great Lake.

I decided to tweet about it:


If past events any indication..over a billion litres of sewage discharged onto streets and into Lake this afternoon #stormTO @lowaterkeeper

That single tweet initiated a chain of events that eventually led to today’s (July 8) legal request for better sewage bypass reporting in Toronto.

CBC’s Metro Morning tackles sewage pollution

My tweet got the attention of Matt Galloway (@mattgallowaycbc). He invited me on CBC’s Metro Morning (@metromorning) to talk about Toronto’s sewage bypass problem. That interview trended on Twitter — people care about their water.

Naturally, one of the first things Galloway asked me to do was to prove my statement. At the time, I could only offer my knowledge of Toronto’s sewage system and its problems as a foundation for my estimate. I knew how much wastewater flows through the system. I knew what happens during heavy rain. I knew this was one of the heaviest rainfalls in history. I did the math.

City of Toronto spokespeople challenged my estimate. We were at an impasse.

The investigation begins

So Lake Ontario Waterkeeper started an investigation. It’s what we always do when we see signs of environmental harm and want to gather facts to figure out what happened.

We went to the mouth of the Humber River and Ashbridges Bay, where the sewage treatment plants usually bypass. We collected water samples (bacteria levels were off the charts), interviewed people fishing, and photographed people kayaking and canoeing. We waited for the city to issue some kind of alert to inform residents that water quality was compromised. They didn’t.

Then Waterkeeper filed a formal information request with the city to find out if bypasses had occurred. They had. In fact, the Humber Wastewater Treatment Plant lost power — it bypassed for 29 hours. Ashbridges Bay bypassed for about 12 hours. All told, the two plants bypassed 1.19 billion litres of sewage into Lake Ontario. That didn’t factor in the sewage that never made it to the plants because it flowed into rivers through combined sewer overflows or backed up into people’s basements.

As it turns out, my original estimate was way too low.

Lake Ontario: A swimmable, drinkable, fishable future

Throughout the process, I felt frustrated. My intention was never to make the City of Toronto look bad. My intention was to make sure that the people who are vital to the lake’s future — the people who swim, paddle, surf, row, and boat this precious lake — are protected. Because I need them to love this lake so that it can be restored and protected.

I want the City of Toronto to complete its infrastructure upgrades. The price tag for this is more than one billion dollars, and there is a shortfall.

I know that people only support major public investments if they understand why those investments are necessary. I truly believe that if people knew about our sewage problem — and knew that it was solvable — there would be more support for infrastructure spending. And cleaner water.

That’s why Lake Ontario Waterkeeper co-founder Krystyn Tully and I submitted a formal request to the Ontario government this week. We’re asking the City of Toronto to implement a simple sewage bypass alert protocol so that the public is informed when bypasses take place.

Sewage bypass alerts: A brief case study

This is exactly the way it works in Kingston, Ontario. After Waterkeeper raised concerns about sewage washing ashore on Wolfe Island in 2006, the city and the Ministry of the Environment worked together to develop an alert system to notify neighbouring municipalities and to log bypasses on its website. It empowers people to protect their health when sewage spills happen — and creates a dialogue that educates the public, as we saw when the Kingston Whig-Standard covered the issue this month.

Toronto needs sewage bypass alerts

It’s a simple request — the City of Toronto should issue a sewage bypass alert, just like it issues cold weather alerts and heat advisories. (Click here to see what an alert might look like.)

This informs residents when there is a risk to their health. Residents care about their health and the environment. They love their waterfront. They just want to be better informed. I think they deserve that.