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In the end, it's all the same water
It's time to bring Canada's sewage treatment systems into the 21st century, says Ontario's environmental chief
The Toronto Star
11/28/03

Canadians have been shaken recently by several high-profile cases of human pathogens being spread through municipal water supplies. This has focused our interest sharply on the quality of our drinking water.

Yet, strangely enough, there has been much less focus on an obvious related question: What is the quality of wastewater we return to lakes and rivers? This is strange because, in the long run, it's all the same water.

Canadians might not be aware of it, but the people who manage water in Canada all agree our sewage treatment plants are aging and have not kept up with demands of rapidly growing populations.

My latest annual report, released yesterday, outlines the situation in Ontario. However, it's the same story in many areas of the country.

In the 1970s, a strong public investment in sewage infrastructure helped achieve some remarkable environmental success stories, such as the recovery of Lake Erie from severe phosphorus overload.

This success was followed by several decades of benign neglect. During this time, governments at all levels gave low priority to the unglamorous tasks of maintaining, repairing and upgrading sewage plants and pipes.

The rather embarrassing result is that Canada's performance on this most basic of housekeeping duties has fallen considerably behind what is being achieved by other leading industrialized nations.

Today, some municipalities, even in Ontario, still rely on primary sewage treatment that does little more than settle out solids. Tertiary treatment - the best available treatment - is much less widespread in Canada than in European countries such as Germany, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland.

In the older parts of many Canadian towns and cities, combined sewers are still the norm, an engineering design dating back to the 19th century. They overflow with every major rainstorm, sending untreated sewage directly into local rivers and lakes. Without strategic long-term plans to separate storm sewers from sanitary sewers, these sewage overflows will remain perpetual insults to aquatic ecosystems and to the users downstream.

The lower Great Lakes and their tributary rivers receive particularly high flows of sewage effluent from the large surrounding populations. To illustrate the magnitude of the challenge, the Grand River in southern Ontario receives the treated effluent from 26 sewage treatment plants. But that same river also supplies drinking water to several communities.

The overall pollutant loadings from municipal sewage treatment plants are very large indeed. They include both conventional pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen, as well as a wide range of persistent organic pollutants and toxic metals.

For example, according to Environment Canada, the two largest contributors of ammonia loadings to Canadian waters in 1999 were sewage treatment plants serving Toronto and Ottawa. Researchers are also finding hormones and pharmaceuticals in sewage, some of which can disrupt the functioning of animal and human endocrine systems.

It's time to bring our sewage treatment systems into the 21st century or, in some cases, into the late 20th century.

As a start, plant managers can achieve impressive gains by optimizing plant performance: This means squeezing better value out of existing plant designs, tweaking existing equipment and improving monitoring to reduce overall pollutant loads.

Municipalities can work to phase out combined sewers. They can also put in place progressive sewer use bylaws, setting limits on the pollutants being poured down drains by industries and residences.

To be sure, many sewage treatment plants will need upgrades and significant investments, involving all levels of government. But the technology has been available for decades. And our investments in clean water will produce innumerable long-term dividends.

As a first step, we need to take an active interest in the quality of our wastewaters and the state of our sewer infrastructure.

We could be creative about this. I wonder how many Canadian towns and cities highlight the performance of their sewage treatment plant and the quality of its effluent on their municipal Web site. This would not be difficult or expensive, and it could be quite illuminating.

Most important, we need to agree on our priorities.

Communities require commitment and a long-range perspective in order to face hard challenges. Successful communities take on these challenges, because it is the right thing to do, and because the paybacks are real and long term.

Sewage treatment is one of those challenges.

The benefits will accrue - they'll be seen at the local bathing beaches, at the nearby fishing spots and, yes, at the drinking water intakes downstream. In the long run, it's all the same water

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