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Connecting citizens to the health of their waterways

A monitoring program that’s demonstrating the impact of water sampling on Lake Ontario and the importance of investing in our cities.

Top image caption: Photo: 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 called Swim Drink Fish has established a thriving citizen hub for monitoring recreational waters.

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 tested in the Swim Drink Fish in-house IDEXX lab for levels of E. coli, which is an indicator bacteria for sewage. This Swim Drink Fish initiative is building on previous Toronto Harbour monitoring from 2016 and 2017.

The Toronto Community Monitoring Program is helping underserved communities analyze their recreational water, publically share the data on the Swim Guide and has increased watershed stewardship.

Through the program, Toronto communities are able to monitor nine important locations in the city for water quality that would otherwise go unmonitored; important because the places that Torontonians like to swim, scuba-dive, paddle, sail and relax are also places that are 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 toilets for example, 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 Programs 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 local community on the recreational 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 7th the average rainfall for the entire month of August landed 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 on the morning of 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 Monitoring program was profiled in multiple local news outlets, and on August 8th Swim Drink Fish posted a Letter to City of Toronto requesting a sewage spill cleanup.

Photo by Flavia Lopez.

Looking to the Future of Community Water Monitoring

The long-term the 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 contribute largely to water quality monitoring programs, and it is common to see water quality monitoring programs run by citizen scientists. 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 increased protection and restoration of the local water bodies.

Right now in both Canada and the US, major gaps in recreational water monitoring exists, even where people love to connect with the water. The Toronto Community Monitoring Program is becoming an example of how people across Ontario and the Great Lakes can better protect and conserve their local water bodies. With the help from the Muskoka Brewery & Evergreen Fresh Water Grant Program, this initiative works toward a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future in the Great Lakes region and beyond.

Photo: Shane Schofield.