Two recent major sewage spills into local rivers highlight an urgent need to reduce that type of pollution — hopefully decades sooner than Winnipeg expects the work could take — according to the head of council’s water and waste committee.
"(It) gives me more fire in the belly to get rid of this 2095 estimated completion date (to reduce combined sewer overflows), and try and get it back to where it should be, which is roughly 2045," said Coun. Brian Mayes.
The province has set a Dec. 31, 2045, deadline for Winnipeg to capture 85 per cent of all combined sewer overflows in an average weather year. However, the city has estimated it will take until 2095 to finish the work at its current investment of $30 million per year, should no other level of government help fund the up-to-$2.3-billion project.
While not all sewage spills are caused by the overflows, addressing them would help cut overall wastewater pollution, something that’s recently sparked headlines.
One recent sewage spill dumped 60 million litres of diluted and untreated sewage into the Red River between April 23 and 25, about a month after a separate construction-related spill poured 78 million L of untreated wastewater into the Assiniboine River.
Over the past few years, and especially following those two major spills, Mayes said public demands to speed up efforts to reduce sewage pollution have greatly increased.
The councillor said he’s grown more convinced the city must expedite work to reduce combined sewer overflows, potentially even by devoting more money to that goal.
"I’m beginning to think maybe we have to go alone on this… At some point, you can’t just sit here year after year and (say) ‘There’s sewage going in the river and we’re going to be done (addressing it) by 2095,’" he said.
City council has already voted to increase its spending to reduce combined sewer overflows to $45 million per year between 2024 and 2027, and is urging the province and feds to help fund the project.
Combined sewer overflows occur when heavy rain or snow overwhelms older sewers that collect precipitation and wastewater in a single pipe, causing them to overflow into rivers. About 5.6 billion L of diluted sewage flowed into local waterways through combined sewer overflows in 2020, the most recent data available.
Mayes said increasing the city’s tab to address that to $60 million a year could actually go a lot further than the $2.3-billion cost estimate for the project indicates, arguing the master plan has been paired with an unusually large contingency fund.
The comments came after the water and waste committee heard a detailed report on a recent 60 million L sewage spill. In that case, the spill involved waste from three overflowing combined sewers, followed by a deliberate city sewage release meant to prevent backup in basements and potential damage to the south end sewage treatment plant.
"When we were seeing critically high levels, the plant running at capacity. We had to make some difficult decisions on balancing risk, protecting public health, keeping basements as free of sewage as we possibly can. And so the decision was made to do some load shedding upstream to take some of that pressure off the system," said Cynthia Wiebe, acting director of water and waste.
Wiebe said stormy weather forced the plant to cope with flows not seen in more than 20 years.
"We don’t make these decisions without a lot of thought and consideration. But we have an old system. The system was designed 100 years ago, and provides some operating constraints that we need to work with," she said.
Coun. Shawn Nason questioned whether the city will be penalized for its last two massive sewage spills.
The first took place between March 16 and 25, when 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 the temporary pumping system at the site, sending 78.49 million L of diluted wastewater into the river.
"In the last four weeks, we’ve pumped (almost) 140 million L of (diluted) undertreated sewage into (our rivers)… Is that not subject to multiple fines from the province of Manitoba?" asked Nason.
Wiebe said both incidents related to weather events and not city negligence. She also said the city has not heard about any potential penalties.
Mayes told media the current system does force the city to choose between allowing sewage to enter basements or pollute waterways, noting some residents have reached out to thank the city for protecting their homes.
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.