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'It's getting worse': Toronto releases harbour health report

Michelle Mackey
Weather Broadcaster

Monday, November 12, 2018, 5:15 PM - Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a Swim Drink Fish initiative, has released findings from their 2018 water quality monitoring program and according to the charity, the results are disturbing.

“To anyone who is asking whether things are getting better or worse in the Toronto Harbour,” says Mark Mattson, President and Waterkeeper, Swim Drink Fish, “they’re definitely getting worse and the 2018 report underscores that.”

Over the summer of 2018, staff and volunteers tested water quality at nine combined sewage outfalls in Toronto and found a consistent pattern of extremely high E.coli levels in Toronto’s Inner Harbour, and they're up from 2017 levels.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is the indicator bacteria of sewage in water. The bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals but can contaminate water. Exposure to E.coli poses a risk to human health.

During four months of sampling, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper documented 2,579 individuals using the test sites during hours staff and volunteers were onsite. More than half (1,377) of the individuals recorded were children attending summer water recreation camps.

E.coli levels at those sites exceeded Toronto's quality guideline by as much as 241 times, and on multiple occasions.

Nine sites sampled at the 100 E. coli / 100 mL standard failed 44 per cent of the time, with one specific site (Bathurst Quay) failing 100 per cent of the time.

Combined sewer outfalls release a mix of storm water and untreated sanitary sewage into the lake. Some of Toronto’s older areas (approximately 23 per cent), where the sewer system was built more than a century ago, have combined sewers. Combined sewer systems are designed to collect rainwater runoff and sewage in the same pipe. But severe rain can trigger an overflow and according to Mattson, the outcome can be dire.

“The storms here in July and August were very significant and both of them caused almost complete explosions of our sewage treatment infrastructure in downtown Toronto,” he says.

But even during dry weather, over 48 hours without rain prior to the sampling event, high levels of E.coli were still documented during the testing period.

While the City of Toronto does not monitor combines sewer outfalls, it focuses on educating the public to help residents and visitors make informed decisions about where, when and how to enjoy the Lake. It also recommends not swimming for 48 hours after a rainfall due to the risk of high levels of bacteria, even at designated swimming beaches.

The authors of the 2018 Toronto Harbour Monitoring report are calling for the city to do more. They outline five recommendations, including placing signs at each combined sewer outlet on the waterfront, monitoring flows from combined sewer outlets located near recreational use areas on the waterfront, informing the public in real-time when those combined sewer outlets are flowing, cleaning up sewage debris immediately after a sewer overflow event, and funding water quality monitoring in recreational use areas near combined sewer outlets.

“The City of Toronto is committed to protecting and restoring Lake Ontario. The City's Don River and Central Waterfront project is a comprehensive 25-year, $2 billion infrastructure program that will combat the impact of combined sewers on water quality in Lake Ontario," The city said in response in a press release.


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