Winnipeg rivers must not be our toilet


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THIS year’s paddling season confirmed the classic Canadian canoe or kayak as an ideal way to recreate in a COVID-19-distanced world. The allure of nature thriving within our city’s limits is easily appreciated from the water’s surface.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/11/2021 (324 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THIS year’s paddling season confirmed the classic Canadian canoe or kayak as an ideal way to recreate in a COVID-19-distanced world. The allure of nature thriving within our city’s limits is easily appreciated from the water’s surface.

A distinct uptick in small water craft was noticeable on virtually all of our urban waterways that remained navigable during drought conditions. The Red River, however, functioned as the primary artery for recreational boating, even though it can best be described as turbid, and fragrant in a privy sort of way.

Releases of raw sewage into our urban rivers persist mainly due to our combined sewer outfalls during wet weather events, which are expected to increase owing to climate change. We would be wise to heed the words of the secretary general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, who was in Glasgow this month and warned we must “stop treating nature like a toilet.” The merging of sewer water and street runoff does just that and results in contamination by a variety of bacteria, parasites and viruses including giardia, hepatitis and salmonella. Risk to human health remains low; however, cautionary washing of hands is advised for citizens using these very unhealthy environments for recreation.

The city is certainly culpable for this predicament and has had its wrists slapped by the provincial government for decades, yet it continues to contaminate surface waterways. For years it has diverted water and waste revenues back to general coffers instead of taking an incremental approach to improving our sewer system. Every year, residential development swells and the city’s ability to deal with wastewater becomes more complicated. In 2019 a master plan was completed and a long-term plan agreed upon with the goal of capturing 85 per cent of the raw sewage before it hits the rivers in a given year, by 2045. This rather unambitious plan is due to the sheer magnitude of the problem and the price tag, which is sure to grow. This burden is well beyond the city’s ability to pay, and it must rely on all levels of government.

In addition, the North End Sewage Treatment plant is close to maximum capacity and requires major renovations to the tune of $1.8 billion. The cards finally did line up in July as the feds and the province stepped in to begin Phase 1 with over $200 million to complement the city’s contribution. These included minor upgrades of the treatment facility, raw sewage pumps, screens and odour monitors.

On top of these underwhelming solutions, the province, which appears intent on stalling and avoiding its contribution, has insisted on the feasibility of a 3P private public partnership, effectively privatizing the treatment system. The cost for the study is $400,000, which certainly could have been better used. Mayor Brian Bowman is hoping our new premier will cease the delays and get on with the plan, because Ottawa and the city are ready to move.

The master plan repeatedly stresses the need for green infrastructure (GI) as a means to limit the wet weather sewer inundations when fecal coliform counts soar. The ideas are valid and include bioswales (channels to concentrate stormwater runoff while removing debris and pollution), tree planting, green roofs, rain gardens, permeable pavements and the redirection of runoff. These are not new concepts. In fact, New York City has adopted green infrastructure and as a result has diverted 890 million gallons of stormwater from its combined sewers, saving millions.

For some unexplained reason, the report states that there must be an evaluation of GI for the first 10 years to confirm its long-term benefits are appropriate and suitable. In other words, more study and more delays. Green Infrastructure Ontario estimates that living green infrastructure is five to 30 per cent less costly to construct and about 25 per cent less costly over its life cycle than conventional infrastructure of comparable performance. It contributes to carbon storage and sequestration, reduced stormwater volume, better air quality and the mitigation of heat effects, all providing better resilience to climate change.

The city reports GI won’t meet the targets alone, may only be considered on civic buildings and has stated it has no current funding applications in this regard. GI has to become a requirement not only for city buildings but all development in the region, and with the feds offering $1.8 billion for such projects over the next 12 years, it is time to act.

In other words, it’s a no brainer. Giddyup, politicians and bureaucrats. It is time to take aim at Winnipeg’s filthy little footnote.

Dave Taylor frequently paddles the Red River and has been writing about river water quality for the Winnipeg Free Press for over 30 years.

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