City’s 2095 timeline to fix sewage overflow problem an embarrassment, councillor says
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Combined sewer overflows sent 10.6 billion litres of diluted sewage into local rivers last year, reigniting demands to reduce that pollution decades sooner than some expect it will take.
Combined sewer overflows occur in older sewers that collect both precipitation and wastewater in a single pipe. Heavy rain or snow events can cause the passages to overflow into rivers.
Despite a summer plagued by drought — notably lacking the wet weather often blamed for overflows — 2021 had 910 combined sewer overflow events. While 30 per cent less precipitation fell between May and September 2021 than during a “representative year,” the total overflow surged billions of litres beyond the 5.6 billion spilled in 2020.
“There’s a couple factors at play. One is the intensity of a rainfall. A short duration, intense rainfall will result in significantly more runoff than a whole-day kind of drizzle,” said Cynthia Wiebe, manager of engineering services for Winnipeg’s water and waste department.
“There was a lot of dryness, which turned the ground really hard and (made) it act a little more like concrete. And, if it’s very intense (rain at that point), you get more runoff,”
Wiebe said river levels were also quite low last summer, which can affect sewage outfall gates and allow larger overflows than when the river is higher.
The 2021 water pollution estimate comes after a string of major sewage spills this year. Between March 16 and 25, an abnormally large volume of snow began to melt before a Portage Avenue interceptor sewer pipe replacement could be completed. That moisture combined with wastewater to exceed the capacity of a temporary pumping system at the site, sending 78.49 million litres of diluted wastewater into the river.
Between April 21 and 25, 1.6 billion litres of partially treated sewage was discharged from the North End sewage treatment plant into the Red River, when torrential rain exceeded the plant’s capacity. The facility then automatically diverted some wastewater to bypass some treatment steps, which blended with fully treated effluent to leave the plant.
And a sewage discharge intended to prevent backup in basements dumped 60 million litres of diluted and untreated sewage into the Red between April 23 and 25.
Unlike these spills, combined sewer overflows pose an expected and ongoing problem, though the amount varies each year. Council’s water and waste chairman said the 2021 results are still tough to accept.
“It’s a disturbing number,” said Coun. Brian Mayes.
Mayes (St. Vital) has previously called for the city to pick up the pace on a master plan to reduce those overflows, which the administration estimates could cost up to $2.3 billion. The province has set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2045 to complete the work but the city has said it won’t hit the target until 2095, if no other level of government helps pay for it.
Mayes said he is “embarrassed” to hear that timeline proposed. He plans to raise a motion at Tuesday’s water and waste committee meeting to have the city delete the 2095 date and work towards the 2045 provincial deadline instead.
The councillor said he believes the city can slash decades off the target date, in part because the up-to $2.3 billion estimate for the work includes an especially large contingency fund beyond the $1.15 billion of expected capital costs. He said that makes the project appear more expensive and extensive than it is.
“I think the sheer enormity of the number means people just give up or they come up with these timelines (to complete it) like 75 years,” he said. “Let’s change our thinking about that.”
When the master plan wraps up, the city expects to capture 85 per cent of the combined sewer overflows in an average weather year. By 2021, Winnipeg captured 75 per cent of overflow volume, up from 74 per cent in 2013. During those eight years, the city devoted more than $157 million of investments to address the problem.
However, Mayes said the pace of that progress was expected.
“We’re pouring money into this but the progress is gradual. That number didn’t startle me,” he said.
Council has committed to spend $45 million annually to reduce combined sewer overflows between 2024 and 2027, up from the current $30 million; senior governments have not yet committed funding.
Wiebe said it’s difficult to say how feasible a 2045 deadline could be, since meeting it doesn’t just depend on funding.
“Given unlimited money, we still couldn’t make it happen tomorrow,” she said. “There will be some market limitations. We don’t want to self-inflate the price by putting too much work out that the market can’t sustain. It’s also very disruptive work (that can tear up streets and other infrastructure).
“Certainly, there is opportunity to accelerate the program. There’s a lot of factors we have to review to see just how fast we can do it.”
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.