Ontario’s environmental watchdog sounded a series of eco-alarms in releasing her annual report this week, but none rang so loud as her warning that Ontarians are slowly killing our lakes and rivers with pollutants from industry, agriculture and sewage from cities.

Speaking with reporters at Queen’s Park Tuesday, Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe said that rules in place to protect source groundwater from contamination have done little to keep lakes, rivers and private wells pollutant-free.

“The government still allows an astonishing amount of pollution to flow into our lakes and rivers,” Saxe said. She pointed to raw municipal sewage from combined sewer overflows (CSOs), agricultural runoff, toxic industrial waste and road salt as the four biggest sources of water contamination in the province.

“All four are things that the Ontario government has known about for decades, but has consistently chosen not to regulate them effectively,” the commissioner said.

Municipalities struggle with curbing raw sewage discharges

Sewage from combined sewer overflows may be the worst culprit of all. In heavy rain, 44 municipalities in the province see rainwater mix with untreated sewage in antiquated sewer systems that drain directly into water bodies, often the same rivers and lakes where residents draw their drinking water.

This happened 766 times last year alone – from major urban centres like Toronto to the tiny township of Moonbeam east of Kapuskasing on the Trans-Canada Highway.

The more we pollute the water, not only do we lose biodiversity, but it becomes harder and harder to find water we can drink.

Municipalities can be permitted to dump raw sewage into water bodies if they have “used all reasonable measures” to avoid it, Saxe said. But she could not think of a single municipality that has taken every step possible to avoid CSOs.

“And the government just keeps turning a blind eye,” she said. Take Timmins in northern Ontario. They have repeatedly allowed the discharge of raw sewage into Porcupine Lake and have failed to meet ministry deadlines for cleaning up their act. “They've been so bad the ministry finally issued them an order,” the commissioner said. “They didn't comply with the order and the ministry still didn't do anything.”

Many Ontario municipalities are not doing enough to levy storm water fees to properly tackle the problem of separating rain sewers from storm sewers. Yet the government has been equally slow to encourage or force local governments to do so despite knowing the huge impact CSOs are having on water quality across the province.

Upgrading sewer systems is expensive, Saxe acknowledges, and is often the excuse given for why cities don’t address the problem. But there are many ways to cut down on instances where raw sewage spills into waterways, she said. Better water conservation programs are a good start to reduce the amount of sewage heading into pipes from homes, but so are investments in green infrastructure and protecting wetlands to absorb and filter urban runoff.

“There's lots of things that can be done,” according to the commissioner.

Water pollution not just an urban problem

But the problem of safe drinking water extends beyond cities and suburbs. According to her report, Back to Basics, one in five Ontarians do not consume water that is protected by the Clean Water Act, legislation from 2006 that set in law how the province would protect source water (lakes, for example, or aquifers) on a watershed-by-watershed basis.   

Of those residents not drinking water protected by provincial legislation, three percent are in northern or Indigenous communities, Saxe said. “There are still 26 indigenous communities that have long-term ‘Do Not Consume’ or boil water advisories on their water, if they have piped water at all to their homes,” she said. “It’s a continuing, serious problem.”

Meanwhile, 15 percent of Ontarians reliant on private wells are entirely on their own to ensure they have a clean supply of drinking water. This is often dependent on having a septic system that doesn’t leak. But “we know that most septic tanks go uninspected for decades,” Saxe told reporters.

There are still 26 indigenous communities that have long-term ‘Do Not Consume’ or boil water advisories on their water, if they have piped water at all to their homes.

And while 82 percent of Ontarians who get municipal drinking water have access to clean water, it’s unwise to expect that municipalities can provide safe drinking water indefinitely if source water protections set to expire on March 31, 2019 are not renewed.

“We have to get water from somewhere,” Saxe said. With a richness of freshwater in the province it’s easy to pollute it and assume there’s still plenty to go around. But once pollutants are in the water supply, they are extraordinarily hard to remove. “The more we pollute the water, not only do we lose biodiversity, but it becomes harder and harder to find water we can drink.”

And across the province, more municipalities are seeing the effects of polluted water. Sudbury and Waterloo, for example, are seeing high levels of sodium in their water supplies, a spike directly attributable to an increase in road salt spreading in winter. People with heart conditions are finding they can’t safely drink their municipal water, Saxe said.

“Ontarians have the right and the tools to protect our environment. We are lucky to live in this beautiful province, and if we want it to stay this way, we have to look after it.”

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.

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