About 5.6 billion litres of diluted sewage flowed into local waterways last year when combined sewers overflowed.
Yet the City of Winnipeg’s up-to $2.3-billion master plan to reduce such spills could take until 2095 to complete.
That pace must speed up, according to the chairman of council’s environment committee.
"We owe it to our children, we owe it to the city to just pick up the pace here. It’s better for Lake Winnipeg and it’s a big environmental commitment," Coun. Brian Mayes said Tuesday.
Combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, occur in older sewers that collect both precipitation and wastewater in a single pipe. Heavy rain or snow events can cause the passages to overflow into area rivers. The diluted sewage contains algae-promoting phosphorus and nitrogen, which eventually winds up in Lake Winnipeg.
Mayes said the master plan to reduce such pollution is set to move forward far too slowly.
"If we don’t speed up, we’re going to get done in 2095. But sewer pipes have a life of 50 years… We’ll never even be able to maintain what (we’ve) fixed," he said.
The final goal of the master plan to reduce CSOs aims to capture 85 per cent of all overflows in an average year. The city says that won’t be achieved until 2095, unless senior governments help pay for the work.
Winnipeg estimates it could only complete its CSO plan by 2047 (two years past deadline) if the city, feds and province each paid $30 million per year. If one senior government matched that city funding level, the city expects it could complete the project by 2059.
That timeline is 50 years past a Dec. 31, 2045, provincial deadline for the project.
"To meet the mandated timeframe… an aggressive increase in sewer utility rates is required and this amount was determined to be unaffordable by utility rate payers," according to a city report.
In the meantime, Winnipeg’s older sewers send billions of litres of diluted sewage into local waterways each year. More than 12 billion litres spilled out during 2019, following about 8.7 billion litres in 2018 and 6.6 billion litres in 2017.
In an emailed statement, the city said weather is largely to credit for the comparatively lower overflow volume of 2020.
"The reduction was primarily due to weather and low rainfall; however, some reduction can also be attributed to progress in the sewer separation program in the Cockburn/Calrossie district," spokesman Adam Campbell said in an emailed statement.
Mayes has pushed for the city to increase its annual investment in CSO reduction from $30 million to $45 million between 2023 and 2026, which has been referred to the 2022 budget process.
A report released Tuesday sets out a potential plan to make use of that higher investment, which would accelerate work in the Armstrong combined sewer overflow district.
While CSOs add far less phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg each year than the north end sewage treatment plant, environmental groups say the spills pose serious concerns.
"Combined sewer overflows also contribute E. coli and fecal coliforms to our water, which make it unsafe for recreation." – Alexis Kanu, executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation
"(The overflows) certainly have a direct impact on water quality in our rivers here in Winnipeg… Combined sewer overflows also contribute E. coli and fecal coliforms to our water, which make it unsafe for recreation," said Alexis Kanu, executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.
Kanu said the phosphorus impact of CSOs may also be increasing, since climate change can make the sudden, severe storms and rapid snow melts that cause overflows more common.
Vicki Burns, director of the Save Lake Winnipeg Project, urged governments to act.
"This is a significant environmental issue and the sooner we get started on (addressing) it the better. I know there are a lot of financial demands (on governments) but having safe, clean water is absolutely a priority," said Burns.
In an email, a Manitoba government spokesperson said the city could apply for an extension of the 2045 CSO master plan deadline but has not done so at this point. The city has also not submitted a formal funding proposal for the CSO plan to the province, the spokesperson added.
"Should the city choose to designate a portion of their strategic infrastructure funds for such a project, the province would consider the city’s request," the statement said.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.