Never swim in the Ottawa River if it has rained during the previous 48 hours, recommends Meredith Brown, the executive director of Ottawa Riverkeeper.
The non-profit group is raising public awareness about raw sewage pouring into the popular recreational river after rainstorms or snow melts. Making matters worse, on the Quebec side of the river, there is a lack of adequate testing for fecal coliform bacteria levels at beaches, Brown said.
The problem is combined sewer overflows -- pipes that carry both storm water and untreated sewage. These systems were built in many Canadian cities between 1880 and 1960.
Usually the liquid goes to treatment plants, but, when volumes threaten to swamp plants, the untreated mixture is diverted into the river to prevent flooding and sewer backups.
"Some combined sewers rarely overflow, while others overflow every time it rains, " says a City of Ottawa information sheet.
It is a problem that is gaining increasing attention from those who kayak, swim, sail or paddleboard in the river, Brown said.
"Once people find out, they are disgusted," she said. "People are starting to think of this as a moral issue."
Ottawa Riverkeeper has teamed up with Mountain Equipment Co-op this summer to raise awareness of the issue and encourage outdoor enthusiasts to join them in calling on the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau to report every time untreated sewage is released into the river.
Many people do not realize that recreational fun in the river has made them sick, Brown said, but swimming in polluted waters can cause numerous health problems, from ear infections to gastrointestinal illnesses.
Gatineau lags behind Ottawa in replacing combined sewer system
An added complication is that the Ottawa River separates Ottawa and Gatineau, Quebec, and the two municipalities are replacing their combined sewers at different paces.
Ottawa is in the fifth year of an Ottawa River Action Plan and a recent report to council said the sewer separation program is about 90 per cent complete, with an 80 per cent reduction in sewage spills from combined sewers. The city is also looking for matching funding from the federal and provincial governments for a $195-million plan for a combined sewage storage tunnel.
Progress has not kept up on the Gatineau side of the border, Brown said.
"They still release millions of litres of sewage into the river," she said. "In Gatineau it happens almost every time it rains. It doesn't even have to be heavy rain."
Gatineau spokesperson Alain d'Entremont said the number of overflow events decreased to 992 last year from 1,500 in 2006. There are now 92 points where sewage can enter the river from combined pipes, down from 110 in 2009.
"We are replacing and redoing (pipes) in some of the old neighbourhoods and the new neighbourhoods don't have combined sewage," d'Entremont said.
Gatineau is proactive in ensuring it gets matching funds from other levels of government for infrastructure replacement, but they are expensive projects, he said.
For her part, Brown understands that money-squeezed municipalities are forced to chip away slowly at infrastructure replacement, but, especially as the contamination is ongoing, recreational river users need up-to-date information on beach pollution, she said.
SwimGuide app tracks beach pollution levels
Ottawa Riverkeeper, with sister riverkeeper organizations from across Canada and the U.S, have created the free SwimGuide app, which tells people about beach pollution levels -- but information about Gatineau's three city beaches is not always current.
Water at Ottawa's five beaches is tested daily by the city's public health department, but, in Quebec, provincial rules require water testing only three to five times during the summer.
Gatineau was already exceeding provincial rules by testing every second week and is now moving to weekly testing for the three beaches, d'Entremont said.
"This summer it seems to be a very sensitive issue and we are going over and above the regulations," he said.
Unlike Ottawa, the Gatineau beaches are not downstream from a large sewage plant, he said.
Based on the test results, Quebec gives each beach a letter grade. An A grade means there are between zero and 20 coliform units per 100 ml of water. When water deteriorates to a D grade, meaning there are more than 200 coliform units in 100 ml of water, swimming or other recreational activities are not recommended and warning signs are erected at beaches.
In 2012, when Gatineau beaches were tested 12 times, the Parc Moussette beach received a D rating three times. In 2013, with eight test dates through the summer, the same beach was posted as unsafe for swimming once and this year, with seven tests completed so far, there have been no beach closures.
Health Canada estimates that, at the D-grade level, one or two per cent of swimmers will become ill from contamination. That means about 100,000 Canadians a year get sick from swimming in polluted waters.
Brown is hoping that the growing awareness of sewage contamination in the river will mean more public pressure, both for daily testing and for measures to stop the contamination.
"You can't fix what you haven't measured. That's the first step," she said.
Even if the health concerns don't push governments to action, there is also a strong economic argument for cleaning up the river and ensuring people are kept informed about pollution levels, she said.
"The Ottawa River is the economic engine of the region. It's a fantastic recreational river," she said. Water quality also affects the tourism business in small communities around the Ottawa River, Brown said.
"People spend a lot of money to go places where they can swim in the water. If that is jeopardised, they start to lose business."
This story was made possible through support from Mountain Equipment Co-op as part of its Homewaters campaign, which is dedicated to preserving Canada's fresh water from coast to coast.
- Judith Lavoie, DeSmog Canada
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