Reducing sewage overflow costly but necessary

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OVER the course of 2021, the Winnipeg Free Press ran opinion pieces lamenting the city’s lack of action on the combined sewer overflow (CSO) problem, with such headlines as “Winnipeg rivers must not be our toilet.” The city has, in fact, taken action on the CSO file in its December 2021 budget vote, with hopes that the provincial or federal governments will join in on addressing this environmental challenge.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/12/2021 (268 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OVER the course of 2021, the Winnipeg Free Press ran opinion pieces lamenting the city’s lack of action on the combined sewer overflow (CSO) problem, with such headlines as “Winnipeg rivers must not be our toilet.” The city has, in fact, taken action on the CSO file in its December 2021 budget vote, with hopes that the provincial or federal governments will join in on addressing this environmental challenge.

The city of Winnipeg, like most other North American cities, was developed using a combined sewer system model, in which household sewage was mixed with stormwater runoff as it was carried to the sewage treatment plants. The safety valve to prevent sewage from backing up into homes, in event of large-scale storm runoff, was to allow excess wastewater to empty into the city’s rivers.

The overflows involve diluted sewage (i.e. household wastewater mixed with rain or snow), but it is raw, untreated sewage nonetheless.

While post-1960 development in the city utilized separate sewers, about one-third of the city’s developed area still uses the combined sewer system. There are 43 combined sewer districts, with runoff points into the rivers at some 76 locations.

There are still dozens of CSO events per year, such as the high-profile and disgusting discharge onto an Assiniboine River skating rink along the river trail in the Wolseley area last February.

The provincial government acts as the regulator of the combined sewer system, through a licence under the Environment Act. Over the past 20 years, successive provincial governments have pushed the city to act to reduce the number of overflows.

Under the province’s direction, the city proposed four options in 2015. The least extensive calls for 85 per cent capture of flow at peak periods (rather than 74 per cent, as of 2015), though even this option had a $1-billion price tag (and this work is distinct from the billion-dollar upgrade required for the North End Sewage Treatment Plant).

The most expensive option — full separation of all pipes throughout city — had a whopping estimated cost of $4 billion. Then-sustainable development minister Rochelle Squires accepted the 85 per cent capture proposal in 2017, but commendably required the city to hit this target by December 2045, not by 2058 as suggested by the city.

The city’s 2019 response to the provincial deadline was troubling.

The city increased its annual CSO funding from $25 million to $30 million, but indicated that without provincial or federal support, the estimated completion date for the work would be 2095 — a crushing 50 years after the provincial deadline.

The city also provided a cost estimate of $1.15 billion, but added in a 100 per cent contingency to argue that the real cost of the program would be $2.3 billion. No provincial or federal support has been announced; the city continues with its work.

Earlier this month, the city approved a budget initiative that could significantly accelerate the time frame for CSO work. The city will increase its annual budgeted CSO program of $30 million by 50 per cent (or $15 million) in each of the years 2024-27, a four-year increase totalling $60 million. Additionally, the CSO work being done in recent years has come in under the budgeted estimate, so the city’s huge billion-dollar contingency looks like it may be excessive.

We now have an ambitious proposal that will see the CSO work completed by 2045 rather than 2095 — but only if the provincial or federal governments can match the city’s $15 million per year increase for the next 20 years. With matching funding, the city would be able to perform $1.2 billion in work before 2045 ($60 million per year for 20 years), thereby completing the required program — or at least coming close.

As the province is the regulator and is requiring work to be done, it seems fitting to get some provincial investment in this program.

The city’s accelerated $60-million effort is targeted to the Armstrong combined sewer district in the city’s North End, as it is the next identified priority.

We are reminded of another Armstrong 50 years ago, Neil, who said (in the sexist language of the day) that the first step on the moon was a small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind. We hope the city’s first steps to accelerate the CSO program spur other governments to take action, as well, so a giant leap can be made to complete the CSO program long before 2095.

Michele Kading is the former executive director of Save our Seine, and Brian Mayes is the city councillor for St. Vital.

History

Updated on Friday, December 31, 2021 9:27 AM CST: Corrects byline

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