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Connecting citizens to the health of their water

An Evergreen-supported monitoring program demonstrates the impact of water sampling on Lake Ontario and the importance of investing in our cities.

View of downtown Toronto from the waterfront. Image: Duncan Rawlinson
Image: Duncan Rawlinson

Published on September 20, 2018

A guest blog post from the team at Swim Drink Fish.

Over the past three years, with the support from the Muskoka Brewery & Evergreen Fresh Water Grant Program, the charitable organization Swim Drink Fish has established a thriving citizen hub for monitoring recreational waters.

The Toronto Community Monitoring Program is a 2018 Swim Drink Fish initiative, built upon the monitoring activities from 2016 and 2017. The program is helping underserved communities analyze their recreational water and increase public access to this information by sharing the data on the Swim Guide. The program also aims to increase watershed stewardship.

Throughout this past summer, over 200 volunteers helped collect more than 900 water samples along the shoreline of Lake Ontario in downtown Toronto. The water samples were then processed and analyzed  at the Swim Drink Fish in-house IDEXX lab. Samples were analyzed for E. coli levels, which is an indicator bacteria for sewage, and used to gage the health risks for recreational water users.

Through the program, Toronto communities are able to monitor the water quality at nine popular locations that are not monitored by the city. These are areas where Torontonians like to swim, scuba-dive, paddle, sail and relax — but these areas are also vulnerable to sewage contamination.

Victoria from Muskoka Brewery gathering water samples. Photo: Shane Schofield.

Sewage Contamination in the City of Toronto?

The major culprit of the sewage contamination is from old city infrastructure called combined sewer outfalls (CSOs). According to City of Toronto data, 309 distinct CSOs exist throughout Toronto. CSOs are pipes that mix together household wastewater from sources like toilets with storm water from the streets and paved areas. During rainfall events in the city, these pipes and their contents overflow into the Toronto Harbour where the Toronto Community Monitoring Program takes water samples. This means raw sewage and polluted storm water runoff is flowing into these highly-used areas. This puts the recreational water users at risk of illness and infection. Sampling these areas helps Swim Drink Fish inform and engage the community on the water quality. It also helps illustrate the major issue of sewage contamination in the City of Toronto Harbour. 

Muskoka Brewery Toronto team helping out during a water sample and cleanup day. Photo: Madeline Buzzi.

Sewage Spill in the Inner Harbour

On August 7, 2018, the average rainfall for the entire month of August fell on Toronto in a single 24-hour period. The streets were flooded and the sewer system was overwhelmed. Because heavy rainfall is known to cause sewage spills on the Toronto waterfront, the Toronto Community Monitoring Team went to Harbourfront early on August 8. That morning, there was evidence of a major sewage spill that posed a threat to public and environmental health. The Monitoring Team gathered the usual water samples and reported the sewage spill to the City of Toronto and Ministry of Environment. In the following days, Swim Drink Fish gathered media attention concerning the sewage spill and on the Monitoring Program documenting the spill. The program was profiled in multiple local news outlets, and on August 8, Swim Drink Fish posted a letter to the City of Toronto requesting a sewage spill cleanup.

A large amount of waste floating on the water.
Photo: Flavia Lopez.

Looking to the Future of Community Water Monitoring

The long-term goal of this program is to create a model monitoring program that any community can adopt to set up their own citizen-science monitoring hub. Around the world, citizen scientists are becoming more common and contribute largely to water quality monitoring programs. Having the ability to monitor the water quality in their own community helps acknowledge the connection and concerns people have for their waters. It can also help increase protection and restoration of the local water bodies.

Right now in both Canada and the United States, major gaps in recreational water monitoring exists — even where people love to connect with the water. The Toronto Community Monitoring Program is an example of how people better protect and conserve their local water bodies and move toward a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future in the Great Lakes region and beyond.

A group shot of the Swim Drink Fish team on a beach in front of Toronto's skyline.
Photo: Shane Schofield.