The location of the sewage breach that occurred in Wolseley on Feb. 22 is where I access the river to ski, skate, bike, walk and run, and to enjoy the natural beauty of our city, communing with fox and deer as well as two-legged neighbours.
We locals call the pump station "the stink house," because it often smells and spills.
But with the river level so low this year, the spills are occurring above the water line. And it also happens, in this COVID-19 winter of our discontent, that there are thousands of people using the frozen rivers for recreation. So now the sewage breaches are being witnessed.
Comments made by community members after the sewage spills included "How can this be tolerated?" and "We’re not in the Middle Ages with sewage in the streets." Many people agree that we must say no to the status quo of using rivers as sewers.
It has also become clear that many people don’t know Winnipeg’s older neighbourhoods have combined sewers, which blend water runoff from the streets with sewage from our homes, and that spills into the river occur when there are "weather bomb" storms, or fast and early melting such as what occurred last month. Such events will only increase with climate change.
It seems people don’t understand how the Winnipeg sewage system is licensed under Manitoba’s Environment Act to allow for these sewage breaches, including what occurred on Feb. 22. People are not aware that on average, 1,000 to 1,700 sewage breaches occur annually in Winnipeg. The environment licence does not require any containment or cleanup of these spills; it only requires reporting.
All the data are required to be made public on the city’s website, including the estimated amount of sewage released, the duration of the spill, and date. These reports are not kept current. And we could demand that fines be imposed, but what would that do, other than having the province rob the city of more funding?
There is more wrong with this picture. The total cost of upgrading all Winnipeg’s combined sewers is huge — $2.3 billion, according to city staff. The current budget has $30 million allocated annually for the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) plan, or $180 million over six years. No funds currently come from the federal or provincial governments, even though those levels of government have responsibility for protecting rivers and lakes and have a much easier time raising revenue.
There is a new federal infrastructure program, but it requires provincial buy-in. Winnipeg is currently financing its upgrades with revenue from water and sewage fees only. No city tax-generated revenue is allocated. There has been money from federal and provincial governments in the past for upgrades — sometimes it has been spent on sewer upgrades, other times to fund projects such as Waterfront Drive or pro sports facilities. Sometime funds raised by the city utility have been used for other things, too. At the rate we’re going, the spills that occurred on Feb. 22 will be repeated the next 40 years. The current environment licence allows for 27 years.
City officials say the sewage system is doing its job, diverting combined sewer overflow to the river and not to our basements. And indeed, there were some basement sewer backups in the city last week. Social-media trolls are taking advantage of this situation by pitting those concerned with basement backups against those of us who think there must be solutions to both river-water contamination and sewer backups.
These arguments are an attempt to incite division and conflict between those of us that would like the city to change its approach to sewage and those who think it’s a simple choice between basement flooding or river pollution. It’s the same old story — jobs versus the environment, based on outdated thinking and the false choices that have brought us into the current climate-change crisis.
But we can think outside this box, and close the loop on poop. Nature is cyclical. In nature, waste can be a resource used as compost or fertilizer. In many places, human waste is collected as fuel. It is used to create energy that can feed into electrical grids and, in some cases power pumps, used in sewage treatment. The billions needed for CSO over the next few decades could be diverted into an innovative system to capture sludge and solids from the sewage system in Winnipeg.
A citywide community group is forming to develop a proposal, to reject the status quo, and ensure we create a new approach for our sewage system — a system that will make us better stewards and will protect Lake Winnipeg rather than pushing this problem into the future for our kids and grandkids to pay for.
If you are interested in discussing innovative solutions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marianne Cerilli is a former NDP MLA (1990-2003) who served as the Opposition housing critic and then legislative assistant to the minister of family services and housing. She is chair of the Wolseley Residents Association.