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Stemming the sewer overflow
Niagara municipalities face a major environmental challenge tackling flows during rainstorms
By Kalvin Reid
The St. Catherine's Standard

When it rains, the sewage pours.

Drops of water falling from the sky inevitably flow towards the gutters, cascading into storm sewers. In older neighbourhoods, these same sewers carry household waste water to a pollution control plant for treatment.

But the sewers, and the treatment plant, have limited capacity. The mix of rainwater with human waste, water from the dishes or a shower, is too much for the system to handle.

The result is an overflow into basements, onto streets and into our streams, canals, lakes and rivers.

"All of a sudden, the equilibrium is disturbed," said Uwe Brand, a professor of earth sciences at Brock University. "It allows foreign invaders to come in and take over. It is a total disruption of the ecosystem."

Sewer overflows are one of the most challenging environmental issues facing Niagara Region today.

A recent study commissioned by the regional government and the 12 area municipalities found about 100 sewer overflow hot spots in Niagara, with hundreds more of lesser concern.

The water and waste water master servicing plan update, completed by CH2M Hill and MacViro consultants and released in July, identifies overflows as "one of the most pressing needs in the region," especially if the environment is a concern.

"Combined sewer overflows are probably one of the biggest threats to the safety and health of the community," said Port Colborne Mayor Vance Badawey, who sat on the committee overseeing the development of the plan.

Only $25 million has been spent on the problem in Niagara in the past seven years, but the master plan says it will cost at least $70 million to address the hot spots.

Regional staff are looking at a cost of more than $200 million in an effort to eradicate the problem. Water and waste water director Chado Brcic said an ideal situation would limit overflows to one every two or three years.

"Combined sewer overflows are a key contributor to the natural quality of the water around us," he said. "It is one problem in the urban areas we can clearly address. But itís the money."

In 1996, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines ranked first and second in the province for sewage plant overflows, with 94 and 85 respectively.

By contrast, neighbouring Hamilton had three overflows and Toronto had 70.

In 1999, Niagara Falls recorded 70 overflows and St. Catharines 44, enough for them to maintain their spots atop the list.

Niagara Falls recently received a $35,000 grant from the Ontario Great Lakes Renewal foundation to help fund a study on sewer overflows.

The $1-million study, which is also funded by the municipal, federal and provincial governments, will test three methods of trapping sewage that would normally end up in the river during rainstorms.

St. Catharines is predicting 30 critical overflows this year, spilling an estimated 300,000 cubic metres of sewage into Twelve Mile Creek or the old Welland Canal and eventually into Lake Ontario.

"If we donít find alternatives, weíre only adding to the deterioration of our lake and water," said St. Catharines Mayor Tim Rigby. "We have to do it. We havenít got any choice."

Over the past decade, the city has spent about $17 million on overflow controls and has pegged a further $13.5 million over the next four years.

The money spent has created extra storage capacity with the construction of three underground bunkers, on Corbett Avenue, in Lakeside Park and Guy Road Park, averaging about 1,000 cubic metres.

But with 150 sewer overflow pipes in the city, even these storage tanks are not enough to prevent spills into natural waterways.

"The majority of these are coming out of the older parts of the city into the old Welland Canal or Twelve Mile Creek," said Cindy Toth, the cityís environmental services co-ordinator.

The city has also put money into storm water diversion and public education. Since 1991, city staff have been working to disconnect eavestroughs from the sanitary sewer system, visiting nearly 17,300 homes with a compliance rate nearing 98 per cent.

The city has also spent about $757,500 on subsidies for 303 homeowners, helping them disconnect their foundation drains from the municipal sewer system.

"This is part of the solution to the combined sewer problem," Toth said.

In the next few years, the city will continue to work towards creating more capacity to capture overflows before they can escape into natural waterways.

"We have a major expense looming in front of us to create a system to capture overflow and treat it," Rigby said. "(Sewer) separation is probably the better answer, but there is a huge, huge cost."

Since 1994, building separate lines for storm water and sanitary flows has been the law in Niagara.

Politically, many are espousing that municipalities should be digging up their old combined sewer lines and replacing them with modern, separated systems.

"Rainwater is rainwater and shouldnít go through a treatment plant," Badawey said. "Separation is going to be the key to allow the Region to direct capital dollars where they are needed."

Even though there is a cost associated with correcting the overflow problem, there are potential cost savings down the road, especially with separated sewer systems.

Keeping storm water out of the sewage system means there is less waste water flowing into a pollution control plant, which costs less money to treat, said Niagara Regionís Chair Debbie Zimmerman.

"If we are not separating, it is allowing what is basically rainwater into our sewage plants," she said. "We are spending a lot of extra money treating water that we donít need to be treating."

But rainwater isnít exactly a clean source of water, especially after it flows along the ground picking up contaminants such as oil slicks and bacteria from animal droppings.

"Storm water is extremely dirty," Brand said. "It runs over parking lots, over green areas frequented by dogs and cats who donít use toilets.

"Even when they use screens to catch solid materials, the bacteria are dissolved. You canít catch them."

The master plan suggests rudimentary treating of storm water before it is released, but that raises the possibility of the chemicals still being in the water when it reaches a creek or river.

In the case of St. Catharines, it may not be economical to dig up old combined sewers, some of which may be 10 metres below the surface, and replace them with a separated system.

"There are places where we want to keep storm water with the sewage and send it to the plant for treatment," Toth said. "Storm water is not entirely clean by the time it gets to a watercourse. It has high nutrient readings and high bacterial counts.

"Storm water on its own can cause beach closures and enhance algae growth."

From the perspective of the general public, beach closures best quantify the impact of raw sewage on the environment.

The city employs what officials call a rainfall rule. A day after a heavy rain hits the city, it is inevitable that bacteria counts in the lake will soar, causing the closure of city beaches.

The city has a target to keep the beaches open well over 50 per cent of the time in the summer. But with better containment of sewer overflows, beaches could be open nearly 75 per cent of the time.

"When contaminants come into the old Welland Canal, we feel that impact on the beaches within a day," Toth said. "If there has been a big overflow into Twelve Mile Creek, it will take half a day to get to the beach."

The contaminant of largest concern is coliforms, which can cause E. coli.

Toth said it isnít a fatal form of the bacteria, but it can cause gastrointestinal illness or earaches. When those bacteria counts get too high, the beach is closed for swimming or bathing.

High bacteria counts have been the norm at Lakeside and Municipal beaches for the past few weeks and water currents at Jones Beach have it closed permanently.

It was E. coli that vaulted water quality to the top of the provincial consciousness in the spring of 2000.

Seven people in the southwestern Ontario community of Walkerton died after drinking water contaminated with a strain of the bacteria.

Preventing sewage from flowing into the source of our drinking water will create an added barrier of protection from E. coli infections, Zimmerman said.

"These combined sewers are one of the biggest problems we are facing," she said. "Walkerton has been an impetus for change for everything to do with water."

On a hot, August morning, the south W54 tributary of Shrinerís Creek in west Niagara Falls is a stagnant pool of water with a grey film on top of it. A constructed channel directs its flow to the creek and, eventually, to the Welland Canal.

With a shuffling walk and hunched back, farmer Peter Grandoni, his eyes squinted against the sun and grey hair poking out from beneath his green cap, leads the way to a second creek, the north W54 tributary not more than 20 metres from the south.

The muddy creek bed is easily seen through the clear water trickling among the cattails and long grass.

Storm water from nearby subdivisions runs through the south tributary, and Grandoni claims personal testing on the site has shown high levels of coliforms.

Standing on a bluff overlooking Shrinerís Creek, Grandoni recalls the days of his youth when he and his siblings would swim in the pools where the creek bends.

A foreign substance now covers the surface of those same pools.

"I can still smell how clean and fresh the water was," he said. "I wouldnít swim in there now. Until they can fix this, thereís no way they can clean up Lake Ontario."

For many environmentalists, itís not enough to ensure sewage stays out of the environment. There has to be an effort to ensure the ecosystem is restored to its previous state.

"Itís a very complicated problem and itís very costly," said John Bacher, interim chairman of the Friends of the Twelve. "We want to make sure the money is spent most effectively to prevent pollution and restore life to the streams. "Itís not just a matter of reducing the contaminants. You want to get fish and living things in there."

Sitting in his fourth-floor office at Brock, Uwe Brand rhetorically wonders if the high cost to fix the problem is a price we as people are willing to pay. But he quickly adds it would be "horribly irresponsible" for us to ignore the situation.

There were days when there was no garbage collection and most raw sewage just ran down the gutter along the road.

Brand figures it is a natural progression that we will eventually stop sending untreated sewage into our water sources.

"Eventually, the day will come where we will have to do it," he said. "As a country, we have a lot of water and we seem to take it for granted. But we are running out of clean, potable water."

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