ON-Ontario-sewagetreaty-flickr-2048x1365

Where does the poop go, Ontario?

In our latest newsletter, reporter Fatima Syed talks about what could clog up Ontario’s Great Lakes — and international relations — as the pressure to address the province’s housing crisis piles up

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Lake Ontario in the winter
“There comes a time in every climate reporter’s life when you’ve gone through the studies, the development plans, the regulations … eventually you’ll hit a pile of crap.” 

That’s what reporter Fatima Syed said, referring to her latest story that follows an undiscussed thread of the Ford government’s plans for building more housing in southern Ontario — the fate of the sewage that would flow from those homes.

“In York Region, the population is set to double by 2051. That means moving tens of millions of litres of more water from the Lake Huron watershed every day,” Fatima told me.

Where would that wastewater go, exactly? The answer to that question has been a pressure point for 14 years. After over a decade of debating whether to build a new treatment facility, the province finally decided last fall to move more water down south to an existing treatment plant on Lake Ontario instead. To do so, it’s eyeing the protected Oak Ridges Moraine, through which it wants to expand a network of pipelines.

Moving water from one Great Lake watershed is known as an intra-basin transfer, and it’s a big deal. For Lake Huron — and Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, which flow from it — it means a loss of water, at a time when levels are already often low. For Lake Ontario, it means absorbing more wastewater: treated wastewater, yes, but the water body is also coping with an unprecedented number of sewage spills, and facing other environmental pressures.
  
Then there’s the issue of the journey itself, which our art director Shawn Parkinson visualized in a 100 per cent accurate way.
 
Animated illustration of sewage from the York region being treated and emptying into Lake Ontario.
“One leak in a pipe, and there’s poop in your drinking water!” Fatima said jokingly. “Well, not exactly, but the chemicals that treat sewage could put a strain on the drinking water for the region — and we don’t want that to happen.”

And it’s not just a question of sewage or its possible impacts on Ontario’s environment.

It’s also about an international agreement signed in 2005 by Ontario, Quebec and eight U.S. states which explicitly bans the movement of water from one Great Lake basin to another.

At the heart of the agreement is the health of the Great Lakes — one of the most unique water ecosystems on the globe, they hold 85 per cent of North America’s surface freshwater. Great Lakes experts told Fatima they worry Ontario’s decision will lead other signatories to wonder why they should honour the agreement when the whole region is facing intense development pressures. 

“The consequences could be so dire, with two watersheds in the Great Lakes and a protected area, we have to start thinking about it now,” Fatima said.

“If the Ford government wants to put shovels in the ground as quickly as it’s indicating … we have to start planning properly for our poop.” 

Take care and don’t be a party pooper,

Karan Saxena
Audience fellow
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