Ottawa River Action Plan a bit short on action

April 2013

Ottawa’s history and identity are closely associated with the Ottawa River and the Rideau River, as well as the Rideau Canal. If these waterways are a source of pride for our city, then their pollution with E. coli bacteria and other contaminants should be a source of embarrassment.

The City of Ottawa has put much effort into cleaning up local waterways over the past few decades. Unlike 50 years ago, most of our sanitary waste is now treated before it’s pumped into the Ottawa River. The health of the river in this area was rated “Good” in 2006, at least by the standards of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment.

But “Good” isn’t really good enough, not when sewage spills measured in millions of litres continue to close beaches, pollute the local shoreline and contaminate habitats.

In 2009, the City began developing the Ottawa River Action Plan (ORAP), a long-term strategy plus a set of 17 shorter-term projects to comply with environmental regulations and improve the health of Ottawa’s water environment, especially as it relates to sewer discharge.

There are several types of sewer systems in Ottawa. Wastewater sewers transport domestic and industrial waste through a network of pipes and pumping stations directly to a treatment centre, where it’s treated before being discharged into the Ottawa River. Stormwater sewers carry rainfall and other surface runoff, including debris and various contaminants, directly to the nearest creek, stream or river.

The major problems are with combined sewers, common in older parts of the city like the Glebe. These collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage and industrial wastewater in the same pipe and, in theory, transport it to the treatment plant. Unfortunately, heavy rainfall and snowmelt regularly overwhelm the system’s capacity, and the excess gets diverted straight to the Ottawa and Rideau rivers.

In addition to stormwater, these combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, contain untreated human sewage, toxic materials and debris. We don’t want these to end up in our waterways, which is why minimizing CSOs is ORAP’s greatest priority.

ORAP addresses this problem through measures that include Real Time Controls to remotely monitor and activate overflow equipment, storage tanks to hold excess wastewater, devices to remove floating material, upgrades to existing CSO sites, improved inspections and maintenance, and replacing some combined sewers with separate wastewater and stormwater systems.

Such infrastructure upgrades and the increased monitoring cost a lot of money. ORAP’s initial budget of $$252 million for 2009–2014 has ballooned to $355 million, in part because of the need to dig two enormous sewage tunnels downtown.

The good news is that we’re already seeing results: The City says CSOs into the Ottawa River are down by almost 70 percent. The bad news is that we’re still discharging millions of litres of untreated sewage and stormwater. Also, the current plan is based on outdated assumptions about the frequency and severity of big storms, which are increasing thanks to climate change.

ORAP could be far more ambitious. Instead of separating some sewer systems and building holding tanks to contain CSOs elsewhere, we could separate our sewers throughout the city. Instead of focusing primarily on CSOs, we could do more to decrease pollution from uncontrolled stormwater runoff. Instead of using a dechlorination process to ensure that treated effluent meets allowable concentrations of residual chlorine, we could adopt more environmentally friendly wastewater treatment technologies in the first place. And instead of treating water health as a localized issue in one river, we could address pollution at its source and recognize that it affects the entire watershed.

ORAP is not perfect, but doing more to clean up our waterways would also cost a lot more, at least in direct financial support. Ironically, doing less would also cost more, in terms of long-term economic, social and health costs.

The City’s and media’s focus on summertime beach closures and E. coli levels might give the impression that swimming is the most important reason to protect the Ottawa River from pollution. But the benefits of healthy water environments — and the harm caused by contaminated ones — are far greater than that.

Yes, it’s nice to be able to swim, canoe and kayak without worrying about bacteria levels. But it’s also nice to stroll along a river without seeing debris, oil slicks or filthy scum. It’s nice to go fishing, or to simply enjoy the wildlife and plants that thrive in a healthy river habitat. And it’s nice to drink clean water that doesn’t reek of chlorine.

Overwhelming public support for the plan to reconnect a stagnant pond in Brewer Park to the Rideau River — to re-establish wetland habitat for fish, birds and other aquatic life — suggests Ottawa residents understand the value of natural areas within urban centres. Access to nature is not only desirable but essential to our health and happiness.

ORAP is a good start, and I look forward to the City being able to further reduce CSOs in the Ottawa River. But I would also like to see more concrete measures to protect existing natural areas from development, and to restore areas that were once part of a healthy water environment.

Councillor David Chernushenko