AN outdated combined sewer system means Winnipeg will continue pumping millions of litres of raw sewage into its rivers every year.
After an overflow left foul black sludge coating a section of the Assiniboine River dedicated to winter fun Monday, organizers and city councillors say it’s time to get creative, find provincial funding, and pick up the pace on reducing sewage overflow.
"We should be clear this is happening and it’s going to continue happening because, like other cities, we have this combined sewer network in older parts of the city," said Coun. Brian Mayes, water and waste committee chairman.
Mayes said the city presented the province with several options to address the issue of sewage overflows: one would have completely separated the sewer system at a cost of $4 billion, and cheaper options that would reduce overflows over a period of several decades.
Ultimately, the province opted for a $2.3-billion program which is intended to reduce untreated sewer overflows by about 15 per cent over more than a quarter-century.
Mayes said he has long supported that plan — which costs the city $30 million annually — but to reach the 2045 target, the city will need to pick up the pace.
"Thirty million a year over 27 (years) doesn’t get you to the finish line, so at some point, the pace needs to accelerate," he said Wednesday. "It would help us speed up the pace if we got some provincial funding."
Modernizing the pipes is a "grinding process" that requires tearing up large strips of road at a steep price, Mayes said. Sewer separation projects are underway at three locations in the city.
Lake Winnipeg Foundation executive director Alexis Kanu said other cities — such as Ottawa — have come up with creative solutions to reduce sewage overflow in the interim. With provincial funding support, Winnipeg could and should be looking at those options, too.
"We probably need to shake ourselves up a little bit, take a look at this multi-(decade) projects that we’ve got in front of us, acknowledge that we have limited capacity and resources, and start looking for smart, strategic solutions that we can implement right away," Kanu said Wednesday.
Mayes said Winnipeg could be looking at more "inventive" options, including incorporating green infrastructure along the modernization process.
So far, the city has worked to bolster its sewer-monitoring system, and now monitors 39 of the 77 sewer outfalls to report both monthly and yearly overflow data. Under the provincial Environment Act, the city is also meant to report overflows on its website — both those that occur as a result of mechanical failures (such as power outages) and those that have likely occurred as a result of wet weather events (heavy rain or snowmelts).
Monday’s overflow was not updated on either information page.
The city noted the overflow was not caused by a mechanical failure. As for the likely overflow tracker, a city representative said the page "is used to report probable (combined sewer overflow) occurrences during periods of significant rainfall based on high-water-level alarms."
"Because snowmelt occurs at a much lesser volume than rainfall, it doesn’t necessarily trigger those alarms, and therefore we aren’t able to offer an estimate," the city added.
"I think transparency about these issues is really important," Kanu said. "People are concerned, people care about these waterways in Winnipeg and the beautiful lake that we get to enjoy just downstream... It’s important that we don’t get caught up in this out-of-sight, out-of-mind idea."
Meanwhile, Mayes said there hasn’t been much public pressure to pick up the pace on sewer modernization, though this year’s low river level and increased attention on to the waterways are drawing the public eye.
"I don’t blame anybody for being upset," he said. "If people are insisting that we’re going to have to pick up the pace, the next time we’re talking about water and sewer rates, that’s going to have to be part of it."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.
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