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.