On Tuesday as I watched our political elite announce federal funding to help the City of Ottawa reduce sewage spills into our river, I was elated. It was wonderful to hear politicians talk about the importance of the Ottawa River and how it is our duty and responsibility to protect it for families to enjoy swimming, paddling and fishing our river. As you might imagine, it is not easy to convince three levels of government to invest over $200 million dollars in buried sewage infrastructure.
The media however didn’t allow time for celebration. They were quick to ask (rightly so): is this investment from the City of Ottawa enough for our river? What about the City of Gatineau they asked, will they stop dumping sewage in our shared river?
My staff and I spent time this week talking to the media and reminding them that untreated sewage and stormwater is polluting lakes and rivers all over our vast watershed. We have the technology to solve most of our sewage problems; what we are lacking is capacity, funding and political will to implement innovative infrastructure projects.
In the City of Ottawa we were fortunate to get all three factors aligned but it didn’t happen overnight.
Eleven years ago when I first became your Riverkeeper I discovered that the City of Ottawa was spilling untreated sewage into our magnificent Ottawa River about 200 times per year! I began investigating sewage spills thanks to a visit from Joseph Potvin, father of two avid paddlers who were training daily on the Ottawa River, hoping to make the national team for whitewater slalom. Joseph told me that his kids were often paddling through raw sewage and he was concerned about their health and safety.
Just the thought of paddling or swimming through sewage is enough to make anyone shudder. I started talking about it whenever I had an audience throughout the watershed. Each time I mentioned that our cities were spilling untreated sewage into our river when it rained people were aghast. As an environmental engineer I knew there were solutions to prevent the spills but I wasn’t quite sure how to develop the political will to fix the problem.
The City of Ottawa often talks about discovering this problem 10 years ago, however city staff and politicians have long recognized this problem. I read a type-written report from the 1970’s about sewage problems in the City of Ottawa and the recommendations for addressing the problems read like our modern day Ottawa River Action Plan! Better late than never I always say.
Building a public beach at Petrie Island was controversial. However, the fact that we have an official swimming area downstream of our combined sewers gave Councillor Bob Monette and our Riverwatcher Al Tweddle a reason to ask well-timed questions about water quality around Petrie Island. They helped expose a problem the City had with their combined sewers and the City ended up in Provincial Court over a large, unreported spill. City Council began paying attention.
This was the catalyst for the City to come up with the Ottawa River Action Plan, consulting Ottawa Riverkeeper and the public along the way. A plan in hand is great but how to fund the plan is another matter. This is where political will comes in. We were fortunate to have champions like John Baird, Bob Chiarelli and Jim Watson who are skilled at finding ways to get important projects funded. Mayor Watson made the health of our river a priority and ensured the City’s budget reflected that priority.
It also helps to have an informed public who cheer loudly for solutions and Ecology Ottawa was very helpful to get people rallied. About three years ago I went for coffee with Graham Saul – he wanted to learn about the sewage issue. He knew from talking to Ottawa residents that they were passionate about the river and Graham was looking for ways to motivate people to act. The river connects us.
I managed to convince Graham that the City of Ottawa was on this and they were going to solve the problem. They were just waiting on funding from the province and the federal government. This is where Ecology Ottawa entered the sewage story, just in time for the final punch. They knocked on doors and got signatures – lots of them – to encourage our federal and provincial government to fund the Ottawa River Action Plan.
This story is about people working together, to create better places to live. I would like to sincerely thank every last person who was involved in this long road to reducing the amount of sewage spilling into our river from the City of Ottawa. You are too many to mention by name but you know who you are and I salute you.
Meredith Brown on behalf of the team at Ottawa Riverkeeper
Photo credits: Oscar Durand from Blue Legacy, CBC News and Ecology Ottawa