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Unpleasant stench lingers around Winnipeg's Assiniboine River walkways

Thursday, February 25th 2021, 10:51 am - 'It just smelled like a bad toilet and it was flowing so fast'

A Wolseley winter wonderland on Winnipeg's Assiniboine River has been ruined by sewage water, a neighbourhood resident says.

Ross Brownlee shot video and took photos of dark, smelly water coming out of a culvert Monday afternoon, he said.

He first noticed dirty water while walking along the Assiniboine toward Omand's Creek with his wife.

"It was really black coloured, like not the river colour," he said.

"And then we got down there and it just smelled like a bad toilet and it was flowing so fast."

cbc: The once white trails have been turned black by the dirty water, Brownlee says. (Submitted by Ross Brownlee ) The once white trails have been turned black by the dirty water, Brownlee says. (Submitted by Ross Brownlee via CBC News)

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They kept walking to try to figure out where it was coming from and noticed a city pumping station nearby.

"It was absolutely disgusting. And what was amazing is watching all the other community people just sort of walking up and looking and no one could really talk. It was just, is this really happening?"

Brownlee said he believes it was raw sewage, because there were items you would sometimes discard in a toilet floating down the river trail.

OVERFLOW 'IMPORTANT FUNCTION OF COMBINED SEWERS': CITY

In a statement to CBC News, the city says Brownlee witnessed wastewater overflowing from Winnipeg's combined sewer system.

Combined sewers, which are found in the older part of the city, collect both water runoff from rain and snow, and raw sewage from buildings— all in the same pipe.

Normally, those sewers transport the effluent to a sewage treatment plant. When there's heavy rain or snowmelt, like there was yesterday, those sewers are designed to overflow into the rivers.

CBC: Bits of garbage can be seen in the water coming out of the culvert. (Walther Bernal/CBC ) Bits of garbage can be seen in the water coming out of the culvert. (Walther Bernal/CBC News)

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"This is an important function of combined sewers, meant to prevent sewers from backing up into the basements of nearby properties," wrote City of Winnipeg spokesperson Adam Campbell in a statement.

The head of Winnipeg's water and waste committee said that means what's being pumped into Winnipeg's rivers is a combination of raw sewage and water runoff.

"Not all of it is untreated sewage," Coun. Brian Mayes said.

"It's part of having an old sewer system. This isn't the only one we'll get all year, but usually they're smaller in scale or less visible," Mayes said.

The city said its committed to reducing the effects of the combined sewer system releasing into rivers, saying there's a plan to increase the amount of outflow it treats by 10 per cent by 2045.

It spends $30 million a year working to separate the combined sewers, Mayes said.

He acknowledges that isn't happening fast enough, but said it's slow-going because the total cost of stopping the sewage overflows is $2 billion.

The City of Winnipeg does report incidents of untreated sewage being released into the environment on its website, but that's only required for unanticipated disruptions to the system, such as a water main break or power outage.

There are 27 reports of untreated sewage being released into the environment in 2020 on the city website.

Brownlee is part of a committee of Wolseley residents who have worked together to maintain skating, walking and skiing trails along the river in the neighbourhood.

The outflow of water has turned them black, which is heartbreaking, he said.

The damage to the winter trails is one thing, but the environmental impact and lack of care for Winnipeg's rivers is even more disturbing, he said.

"My wife and I were out canoeing on the river last summer and we were surrounded by toilet paper," he said.

"I think the river should be a highlight for Winnipeg and we should be really caring for these beautiful resources."

This article was originally published for CBC News. Contains files from Marina von Stackelberg.

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