Our stormwater and sewage infrastructure in Ontario is old and, in many municipalities, at or over capacity.
This is particularly the case in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, where population growth has far outstripped the expansion in our storage and treatment capacity for wastewater. This means every year we dump an increasing amount of untreated and partially treated sewage into our lakes and rivers.
The same waterbodies we swim, boat and fish in, and draw our drinking water from.
This is not a new issue. In fact, its an age-old practice.
The real problem with this is that we don't talk about it enough.
As a result, people unknowingly use these waterbodies during or shortly after sewage is dumped in them.
I would be willing to bet if people knew about a sewage bypass in their local waterbody they wouldn't be swimming, fishing or boating in it.
A majority of the sewage dumping that does occur goes unaccounted for and is difficult to track given the current state of our combined sewer systems in older urban centres; however, where we do track and monitor this dumping, we still, more-often-than-not, choose not to publicly report on it.
When municipalities are forced to bypass the full treatment cycle at their water treatment plants and dump partially treated sewage into a watercourse due to capacity issues they are required to report this to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC).
There is no requirement, however, to post this information publicly.
Last year, 6.5 billion litres of sewage bypassed the full treatment cycle and was knowingly dumped into public waterbodies across the province, according to the MOECC.
That equates to approximately 2,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools or approximately 47 minutes of flow over the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls — of sewage, into public watercourses that people swim, fish and boat in.
MPP Sylvia Jones is leading a campaign to make this information publicly available.
Bill 141, the Sewage Bypass Reporting Act, calls for the MOECC to simply publish the information it receives from municipalities about sewage bypasses on its website.
The process is simple and inexpensive and gives people this information so they can decide whether or not to use their local lake or river.
Dumping sewage is going to continue to happen.
Municipalities, with the help of the provincial and federal governments, are slowly working towards upgrading their wastewater systems to account for this problem, but it is going to take decades to accomplish.
In the meantime, we need to be giving people the heads-up that they may be swimming or fishing in water they recently flushed down their toilets.
We should be giving them the chance to decide whether to swim that day, or wait 24 hours for that water to move downstream.
Patrick McManus is the stakeholder relations manager for the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association. Send comments and Industry Perspectives column ideas to email@example.com.