According to The Living City Report Card released on January 31, “77 per cent of urban areas within TRCA’s jurisdiction still do not have adequate storm water controls”. That is significant not only for our lake and rivers which characterize the natural environment but also for human health and economic development. Though the city faces many environmental challenges, storm water management is one challenge that is in need of renewed attention and focus. The Living City Report Card gave storm water management in Toronto a failing grade of an F due to the need for significant investment and improvements required to improve or retrofit Toronto’s infrastructure.
Poor storm water infrastructure is not a unique situation to Toronto. Most older cities have aging sewer systems that were built in the early stages of city development. Common sewers – those that combine both sanitary runoff and sewage – cause issues from overflows during periods of high rain or snowfall. When these systems were initially built it was assumed that the sewage would be diluted sufficiently so that even if there were overflows there would be no lasting effects. As cities grew and demands on the systems increased overflows became increasingly common and concentrated. The overflow goes into lakes and rivers and is composed of human waste in addition to pesticides, road salt, gas and other toxins that go down the drain.
Sewers do not receive much attention for many different reasons including complexity, cost and the simple fact that it’s a vital infrastructure that no one sees. Cities can approach the problem in two ways: at the source or the end of pipe. At the source there are numerous methods in which waste water that goes into drains can be reduced. Green infrastructure can make a significant difference. Green roofs, permeable parking lots, rainwater harvesting or roadside swales capture the water that would have gone into the sewers. Reducing the volume of storm water can help reduce the possibility of spills, bypasses or overflows.
Toronto’s Wet Weather Master Flow Plan, which was adopted in 2003, is an attempt to incorporate both source and end of pipe solutions over the next 25 years. A combination of educational campaigns about proper disposal and infrastructure upgrades make the plan diverse and comprehensive, although the effectiveness of this plan is yet to be seen. According to data from Toronto Public Health from 2003 to 2007 the total days that Toronto beaches were closed over the summer months did not change significantly. Water quality changes did not follow any linear pattern and spikes or dips were more likely due to the weather during that particular summer. The problem is complex and relies on individual behaviour as well as infrastructure. The results of the Wet Weather Master Flow Plan may not be seen for many years to come.
If a home owner chose not to upgrade degrading plumbing or a sagging roof most folks would say that they were not responsible home owners. The equivalent is happening in Toronto. Infrastructure that is long overdue for an upgrade is only slowly being addressed. Moreover, opportunities to help ease the burden on sewer systems like Green Roofs, are being delayed or programs such as downspout disconnection are lapsing. Storm water management solutions can be so multi-faceted that the benefits would go far beyond merely cleaning the water. It is time that city management takes a good hard look at their failing grade and make a decision about how to best invest a limited budget.
Photo by aubs