Sewage Ain’t Sexy

Sewage Ain’t Sexy

  . . . a monthly TREA blog about the essential conversations we need to have about sewage treatment in London. Of course talk is cheap if not followed up by action  . . .


1. “A’s” for Alberta.

Ah, Alberta. Mention the province around environmentalists and you are sure to hear strong opinions.  Oil, tar sands/“oil sands”, pipelines vs rail, carbon tax, and GHG’s will all come to mind. But this post is about sewage.

I have a strong opinion about Alberta and sewage, one that I hope most environmentalists will take notice of and – out of fairness – acknowledge. In terms of sewage, a serious environmental (and health) concern, Alberta’s two largest cities lead the country in sewage treatment technology.  Calgary (pop.  920, 000 ;  164 billion liters of sewage in 2003) has been the top-rated city in the National  Sewage Report Cards on sewage treatment issued in 1994, 1999, 2004, getting grades of A-, A, and A+ respectively in those years.  Edmonton (pop. 685, 000; 94 billion liters of sewage in 2003) steadily improved from B- to B+ to A- in those reports.  Both of those cities have 100% of their sewage treated to tertiary level and disinfected by UV prior to discharge into the Bow and North Saskatchewan Rivers, respectively.  (The reports above each have an excellent description of sewage treatment, making the terms primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of treatment easily understood).  By comparison, Ottawa’s treatment of sewage has fluctuated between grades of B and C. Montreal has rated grades of   F, and F+.  The 2004 national report card gave Toronto a B-.  I take little pride in London’s handling of it’s sewage, in spite of the fact it does a far better job than my home town of Saint John, NB  ( F) which like almost all seaside Canadian cities still dumps significant portions of raw or minimally-treated sewage directly into the ocean. This type of behavior in conjunction the fair-to-middling grades of most other analyzed municipalities has prompted Ecojustice to repeatedly classify Canada’s treatment of sewage as pitiful and a national disgrace.

London should aspire to better stewardship.  But aspirations won’t be enough without the will, commitment and money to do better. Despite having the toughest sewer by-law in the country (as judged by Ecojustice), Toronto still treats it’s sewage to secondary level, and has capacity issues that forced it to dump nearly 10 billion liters of untreated sewage and storm sewer run-off directly into Lake Ontario. The same Lake Ontario that Toronto uses as the source of its drinking water.

London has not been included in the national sewage report cards that have looked at 21 of Canada’s cities, -with a 22nd, Whistler, BC (an “A”) being added in the 2004 report. However, London has been featured in reports focused on sewage treatment around the Great Lakes. Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defense Fund), an environmental consortium, released The Great Lakes Sewage Report Card (2013) this past September. In their analysis of 12 municipalities that discharge into the Great Lakes system, London with a grade of C- ranked 11th, just ahead of Windsor.

It sounds strange to suggest one can take pride in one’s city based on its ability to handle its sewage. I suspect neither Calgary’s residents nor Edmonton’s take any pride in it ,let alone pay much heed to how well they handle the problem. Flush it down – the problem seems to disappear. The only residue is one’s monthly utility bill. If positive motivation won’t work, maybe shame will. Perhaps an annual ignominious award “Canada’s Shitty City” might spur improvement among the laggards . . .

For the City of London, I am not asking for heroic measures. Some cities in Africa (Windhoek, Namibia) and California (Orange County) have for some years now purified their sewage back to better than drinking water quality. Some actually use this directly as drinking water (out of sheer necessity – water being so scarce).  Many other American and Australian municipalities have long histories of recycling water to a “clean” state for uses (other than drinking water) such as crop irrigation, and industrial uses (car washing). Many of these water utilities are increasingly pumping this water back to surface reservoirs to allow it to sink back into depleted freshwater aquifers. This is to partly remove the “ick factor” by allowing the pure water to naturally filter through soil and gravel (picking up minerals and impurities!) before it is once again re-purified as part of the normal drinking water supply. Another reason for this is that some freshwater aquifers, especially in parts of Florida and California, have been so depleted that salt water from the ocean has been infiltrating inland. The pumping or seepage of restored/recycled water into the groundwater is intended to prevent/reverse this process. (For a quick review on this part of the story check out Elizabeth Royte’s A Tall Cool Drink of . . . Sewage?, a   2009 award winning story from New York Times Magazine). London should aim for higher quality of recycled water (treated sewage) that would in the coming years be increasingly diverted to depleted wetlands and bogs for further natural conditioning before returning to the Thames river.

Canada likes to think of itself as a water-rich country, and by most international comparisons it is. However, despite holding 20% of the world’s accessible fresh surface water, the Great Lakes are not inexhaustible. Nine million Ontarians and nearly 100 million Americans depend directly on The Great Lakes. They cannot continue to be both our source of drinking water and recreation AND the final repository of our toilets and industrial wastes.


Thanks to Peter Ferguson for this blog contribution.