For a time, it really was a winter wonderland; Wolseley residents worked hard to build and maintain skating rinks, skiing runs and walking trails along the Assiniboine River.
But it all went down the toilet — literally — Monday night as a smelly black sludge littered with bathroom waste slurred out of a city sewer pipe, taking over the neighbourhood ice.
Chris Beauvilain was sitting down for dinner with his family Monday when he got a text about the flow coming out of the pipes near Clifton Street and Dominion Park. When he went down to the ice to investigate he found "a stream of black, sludgy substance" that smelled "sort of like a toilet" leaking onto the river.
"It’s pretty heartbreaking," Beauvilain said Tuesday. "This year especially, there’s so many people using the river, there’s so many trails being used so this all flowed down our entire trail system, all over everyone’s hard work."
Since the river froze in late December, a rag-tag committee had been working to make Wolseley's chunk of the ice into a self-described winter wonderland. Skating trails were lined with leftover Christmas trees, fire pits and benches became community-gathering places and neighbours worked to flood impressive rinks complete with boards for pickup household-members hockey. The group had even begun fundraising to build stairs and other accessible entry points along the river's steep and muddy banks.
During a time of social isolation Wolseley's self-made river trail became "the heart and soul of our community," Beauvilain said, making its abrupt and foul flooding a massive disappointment.
“Even if we had not been able to skate on it one more time, to see this as the end of it was pretty sad.” – Resident Chris Beauvilain
"After such a great winter where everyone came together after such a hard year, some of us had seen this as an opportunity to go down, do a garbage cleanup at the end of the year, celebrate the river and really build on this momentum," he said.
"Even if we had not been able to skate on it one more time, to see this as the end of it was pretty sad."
Marianne Cerilli, chair of the Wolseley Residents’ Association, said she’s aware sewage overflow has been funnelled into Winnipeg's rivers for years, but this year's low water levels and heavily used trails made this one more visible and disappointing than ever before.
"It’s toast," Cerilli said. "The area is now black, the skating rinks and the skating trails are now covered with sludge."
Every year heavy rains and long spring warm spells mean billions of litres of untreated "combined sewer overflow" comprised of rainwater, snowmelt and sewage from homes and businesses — are flushed into the river to avoid flooded basements caused by sewer backups. City data estimates there were an average 15 overflows at each of the city’s more than 70 outfalls in 2019.
The amount of sewage in the water varies according to several factors, but is estimated to make up approximately four per cent, on average.
"It’s not possible to anticipate an overflow at a specific outfall," a city spokesperson said in an email Tuesday.
“It’s toast. The area is now black, the skating rinks and the skating trails are now covered with sludge.” – Marianne Cerilli, chair of the Wolseley Residents’ Association
Under provincial order, the city publishes online reports of accidental sewage releases, such as those caused by power outages. The most recent such incident occurred last Thursday, when 15,000 litres of effluent washed into the Assiniboine at St. Charles Street in just under three hours. The cause was listed as a sewer blockage at a nearby intersection.
The city also publishes likely periods of combined sewage overflow. However, there were no such reports during the last two days.
The city could not provide an estimate for how much effluent was released into the river from the Wolseley overflow.
Monday night’s event, the city said, is simply "a result of the system functioning normally in response to the snowmelt."
Cerilli spent time on the phone with 311 looking for answers Tuesday, she said.
"We’re trying to do something positive for the neighbourhood and for the city residents," she said. "We need better communication between city staff and resident groups that are doing this.
"There’s a lot of interest now in the river, in the river as recreational space, as a beautiful natural area, whether that’s in the winter or in the summer."
Our PoopBot tweets when poop hits city waterways. He will tweet about the amount of time the city's combined sewers are (or may be) overflowing into the rivers. And when the city reports accidental sewage spills, he'll tweet those out as well.
PoopBot tweets when poop hits city waterways. He will tweet about the amount of time the city's combined sewers are (or may be) overflowing into the rivers. And when the city reports accidental sewage spills, he'll tweet those out as well.
Where's he getting his information from? The City of Winnipeg. Here, city officials report the likelihood of combined sewer overflows over the last 24 hours and here, officials report specific incidents.
The Winnipeg Free Press bot visits those sites once a day and reports back. You're probably not checking these websites yourself all the time, so we created PoopBot to help you out.
Beyond the destruction of Wolseley’s trails, Beauvilain said he was shocked by the city’s "unhealthy approach" towards the rivers, which eventually lead to problems throughout the city and in nearby lakes. He believes the city or province should take a leadership role in keeping waterways clean.
The city's current master plan anticipates the sewer system — which currently processes 74 per cent of wastewater volume — will be able to treat 85 per cent by 2045.
Beauvilain and other residents gathered for emergency cleanup Monday night, pulling furniture, Christmas trees, signage and shovels out of the debris before the river melts further, taking the waste east to The Forks and then north in the Red River towards Lake Winnipeg.
"When you see that black sludge on the ice, it's a really strong visual of how poorly we treat this," he said.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.