Aging Infrastructure, Part 1: The Trouble Underground

March 28, 2009 by Sharon Adams
Debris collects at the mouth of a storm drain along the St. Lawrence River. [PHOTO: ANDREW EMOND, WWW.WORKSONGS.COM]

Debris collects at the mouth of a storm drain along the St. Lawrence River.

The pitter-patter of rain on the rooftop that used to lull Windsor, Ont., homeowner Steve Horoky to sleep now puts him on high alert. Three times since 1996 his basement has flooded with raw sewage following rainstorms. The first flood was blamed on sewer lines that needed cleaning, he says; the second on a breakdown at a pumping station. Number Three was blamed on an unusually heavy rainfall.

Since that initial flood, Horoky’s trust in public utilities has been eroded. Events in Walkerton, Ont., where seven people died from drinking contaminated water in 2000, are “an example of how things can get out of control,” he says, noting he buys bottled drinking water. “I don’t want to drink it and find out 12 hours later it should have been boiled.”

He’s also concerned about the number of times—at least 129 in 2006—that Windsor spills sewage into the Detroit River. But without these overflows, many more Windsor basements would flood with sewage after rainfalls, says Paul Drca, the City of Windsor’s manager of environmental quality. Windsor hopes infrastructure funding announced in the January federal budget will help pay for a $60-million project aimed at eliminating overflows.

Horoky knows a lot of these problems stem from aging sewer and water infrastructure, and he’s angry it’s gotten so bad. “I don’t think someone woke up one morning and said ‘you know what, all our sewers are no good.’ I’m sure there was somebody over the course of the years (who should have decided), so much money is supposed to go into sewers, so much into infrastructure.”

Sewer construction in Ottawa, November 1903. [PHOTO: JAMES BALLANTYNE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA133670]

Sewer construction in Ottawa, November 1903.

Trouble is, a lot of politicians tend to think of their stewardship in terms of their time in elected office, says Doug Struthers, mayor of Merrickville-Wolford, a picturesque village on the Rideau River about an hour’s drive from Ottawa. When the village’s sewage treatment plant was built about 30 years ago, a plan to fund replacement was not put in place. An engineering inspection in 2002 revealed corrosion inside the holding tanks. As well, “when a part breaks down, we can’t get that part anymore.” Estimates for replacing the plant, now past its design life-span, are more than $8 million.

A politician for 14 years and mayor for eight, Struthers says this issue worries him. If the tanks fail, sewage would make its way into the Rideau River, and downstream to Ottawa. It could seep into the groundwater, affecting wells supplying nearby rural residents. “Let’s all hold our breath,” he says, and hope the village finds funding for replacement before a catastrophic leak.

Horoky and Struthers aren’t the only ones suffering sleepless nights over sewage systems. Statistics Canada reported recently that the average age of Canada’s wastewater treatment facilities has been increasing steadily since the late 1970s, owing—presumably—to fewer new systems or upgrades. It pointed out that in 2007 the gross stock of investments in sanitary and storm sewers as well as wastewater treatment in Canada amounted to $60 billion. “The average useful life for this asset is estimated at 28.2 years. In 2007, these facilities passed 63 per cent of their useful life nationally, the highest ratio among the five public infrastructure assets, a list that includes highways and overpasses. Provincial figures were all above the 60 per cent mark, with Prince Edward Island ranking at the top.”

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) estimates water and wastewater infrastructure needs $31 billion in upgrades while the Canadian Water Network puts it at $39 billion to maintain water and sewer systems, and $90 billion over a decade for replacements and upgrades.

There’s growing evidence water and sewage is a problem across the nation. Sewage backups into residences have become the Number One home insurance claim, outstripping fire, theft and vandalism, says Robert Tremblay, director of special projects for the Insurance Bureau of Canada. “Sewer infrastructure is becoming overwhelmed.” One storm in Toronto in 2005 caused $500 million in claims for floods from sewer backups. As well, in 2008 more than 1,800 Canadian communities had boil-water advisories, some of which have been in force for years, according to a Canadian Medical Association Journal investigation. Beach closures due to high bacteria counts and algae blooms are common on lakes and rivers, and on Atlantic and Pacific shores.

How did we get into this mess?

“How?” says Frank Zechner, executive director of the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association. “That’s easy to explain—out of sight, out of mind. Basically, the life expectancy of the pipe exceeded the lifetimes of the people who put it in.” These systems, largely underground or out of sight, are invisible to the rest of the population—until there’s a problem.

Workers in Ottawa install a sewer in 1934. [PHOTO: NATIONAL DEFENCE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA035192]

Workers in Ottawa install a sewer in 1934.

“Our sewers have worked too well,” says Dr. Mark Knight, associate civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Waterloo, and executive director for the Centre for Advancement in Trenchless Technologies. In earlier days “nobody could say ‘fix this problem today or there will be a catastrophe tomorrow.’ Our systems don’t fail that way.”

So problems gradually built up over decades while municipal officials dealt with what seemed like more pressing budgetary issues, and taxpayers remained blissfully unaware of what was going on below their streets.

Municipal leaders faced a population boom after the Second World War and were struggling to provide services to burgeoning suburbs. One way to get a bigger bang from the infrastructure buck was to put storm and septic sewers in the same pipes. And it worked well so long as city centres had residential neighbourhoods with grass yards and plenty of thirsty trees to help soak up rainwater. Fast-forward to the 21st century: apartments and condominiums stand where many single-family homes used to sit in urban cores, sometimes placing a bigger burden right where pipes and connections are the oldest. Parking lots have bloomed in place of lawns and trees. Rainwater can’t soak into the ground as much, so more goes into the storm sewers, and if they’re connected to sanitary sewers, treatment plants are overwhelmed. To avoid damage to the system and sewer backups into homes when that happens, cities across the country release this effluent, called Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), into nearby streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.

CBC reported last July that Ottawa, as one example, releases more than four million litres of raw sewage into the Ottawa River each year. Also last year, the city was fined thousands of dollars for not reacting quickly enough to a CSO that spilled 960 million litres of sewage into the river in 2006. CBC also reported that across the river, in Gatineau, Que., there were nearly 1,500 overflows into the Ottawa River in 2007, and Toronto is currently doing emergency repairs after discovering cracks in a critical sewer line built in 1950 that serves 750,000 residents.

Certainly the rapid expansion of urban areas has presented cities with difficult choices. On the one hand, they have had to deal with the costs associated with new development and on the other, big-ticket maintenance on existing infrastructure. “One of the principal causes of the extensive deterioration of Canada’s infrastructure is deferred maintenance during fiscally difficult times,” states Danger Ahead: The Coming Collapse of Canada’s Municipal Infrastructure, a 2007 report for the FCM by Dr. Saeed Mirza of McGill University’s Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics. Problems then get more expensive to remedy, in part because deterioration worsens.

As cities became denser, CSOs became more and more frequent, but the public was unaware of the extent of the problem across the nation because reporting of CSOs and boil-water advisories are handled differently from province to province. Canada has national guidelines for drinking water, and Environment Canada states the federal government “is planning to introduce new regulations to govern the effluent and overflow discharges from wastewater systems” and “is continuing to work closely with provinces and territories to better manage pollution from wastewater systems.”

An elevator transports workers to Toronto’s underground waterworks in 1910. [PHOTO: ARCHIVES OF ONTARIO—RG 2-71, SHA-87]

An elevator transports workers to Toronto’s underground waterworks in 1910.

Lack of public reporting has allowed the problem to grow, says Liat Podolsky, science researcher at Ecojustice Canada and co-author of the 2008 report Green Cities, Great Lakes, Using Green Infrastructure to Reduce Combined Sewer Overflows. Ecojustice had to file freedom of information requests to amass some of the data, something ordinary citizens are unlikely to do.

Ontario has 107 combined (storm/ septic) sewer systems, the Ecojustice report states. There were 1,544 reported releases of sewage in 2006—and likely more, since the information did not cover all sewage treatment plants. Ontario municipal sewage treatment bypasses in 2006 accounted for an estimated 1.7 trillion litres of sewage effluent entering the Great Lakes watersheds, including 10.9 billion litres that bypassed treatment plants altogether, as well as 7.5 billion litres of partially-treated effluent. There was no information available for CSO volumes.

“Overflows from CSOs are difficult to measure because of the episodic and highly variable nature of wet-weather events,” states Environment Canada. “Estimates of annual CSO pollutant loadings for the whole country are not available.” But from coast to coast, CSOs are a growing problem in cities with combined sewer systems.

Data were “pretty inconsistent and incomplete” even for this one province (Ontario), adds Podolsky. “There needs to be increased standards in how municipalities and sewage treatment plants themselves report every single incident or spill,” she says. The report calls for a standardized process for gathering, summarizing and reporting to the public. The public should be able to get information directly from operators of sewage treatment plants, and from municipalities, which should ideally be required to post compliance reports on public websites, it states.

Such public reports were also among recommendations of the Manitoba Clean Environment Commission following public hearings into an incident in 2002 in which a valve stuck open, shutting down Winnipeg’s largest sewage treatment plant for 57 hours. An estimated 427 million cubic metres of untreated sewage sludge flowed into the Red River which feeds into Lake Winnipeg, the health of which is a hot-button issue. The waterway is heavily used for recreation in all seasons, and the lake supports a commercial fishery. The city has since developed a notification system to inform the public of releases of raw sewage.

Public hearings into this incident focused attention on Winnipeg’s sewer system, ultimately resulting in plans to reduce wet weather overflows to four per year from 18 by building facilities to store overflows for subsequent treatment. Costs for infrastructure upgrades have ballooned from initial estimates of about $800 million to “$1.5 billion over the next 25 years,” says Gord Steeves, Winnipeg city councillor.

Although the province will kick in some money for these upgrades—about $250 million has been promised so far—users will shoulder the brunt of the load in future, since the city is moving to a user-pay system for water and sewage utilities. “Over the next 10 to 15 years, we could see rates double twice, then double again,” adds Steeves.

Rates for sewer and water service are increasing across the country as strapped municipalities move to user-pay systems. “We have full-cost pricing for energy, electricity and natural gas,” says Zechner. “You do not see stories about crumbling gas pipelines about to blow up…rates are in place to make sure there’s sufficient money to pay for that work.”

A re-aeration tank at Scarborough, Ont., in 1925. [PHOTO: ARCHIVES OF ONTARIO—RG 2-71, SHB-40]

A re-aeration tank at Scarborough, Ont., in 1925.

Historically, Canadians “have never paid full cost recovery with respect to municipal water rates,” says Knight. To get there, municipalities need to move to usage fees from flat rates. “We have to charge more in order to make the system sustainable. It has to be on a cost-recovery basis.”

Environment Canada surveys of water use of 25 million Canadians in 1999 found just over half of Canadian homes had water meters, and water rates varied wildly across the country. At that time, only about half the cost of maintaining and operating water and sewer infrastructure was being recovered from users of the systems. Usage fees were promoted as spurs for water conservation and preservation of the environment. It’s hard to persuade Canadians that water is a scarce resource when nine per cent of the country’s surface is covered by water (including nearly two million lakes) and so many of the country’s major cities are within driving distance of the Great Lakes basin which contains 18 per cent of the world’s fresh surface water. In 1999, Canadians used 343 litres of water per person per day, compared to 128 for Germans and 149 for people in the United Kingdom.

Events of the 21st century showed user-pay systems can also help preserve human health as well as the health of their water and sewage systems. Public attention was galvanized by enquiries into the deaths in Walkerton, and the illness of 7,000 people in 2001 due to sewage contamination of drinking water in North Battleford, Sask., as well as news coverage of entire vehicles falling into holes caused by subsidence due to leaky pipes. “It’s very fresh on the minds of people we’ve surveyed,” the majority of whom are in favour of user-pay systems, says Zechner. Taxpayers were also quick to understand the financial implications of leaky pipes on water and sewage bills. When freshwater ends up in sewage pipes, volume going into sewage treatment plants increases; when groundwater leaks into freshwater pipes, it increases the cost of treating drinking water.

Lack of funding coupled with subsidization of water and sewage services explains why many municipalities settled for patching up systems and deferring maintenance programs. “Other municipalities used the Band-Aid approach, instead of basing it on the design life of the system,” says David Desrochers, manager of sewer and drainage design for the City of Vancouver. “We had some visionary people.”

For decades it’s been Vancouver city policy to replace about one per cent of the city’s sewer system per year, thus separating about 95 per cent of its 1,397 kilometres of combined storm and septic sewers in order to eliminate CSOs by 2050. Regular replacement will also “keep pace with the sewer network life cycle,” states the city’s 2007 Sewer Utility Annual Report. Steady funding also helped the city “avoid overburdening one generation with costly infrastructure renewal mega-projects.”

A storm sewer blows its cover during a rainstorm. [PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/Dizzy]

A storm sewer blows its cover during a rainstorm.
PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/Dizzy

Even so, they’ve fallen behind in the past few years, partly due to labour difficulties, variable funding from senior governments and the cost of construction outpacing inflation. To meet goals by 2050, says Desrochers, “we have to ramp up.” Funding will rise to $25 million annually 2009 through 2011, up from $19 million. Until recently, two-thirds of the cost of sanitary sewer upkeep was borne by the utility, one-third by taxpayers. At the end of 2008 the city moved to a user-charge system.

“Part of the reason we got into this problem in the first place is the way funding has operated over the years,” says Desrochers. “Municipalities have not been funded properly to address infrastructure problems on a huge scale.” Municipalities without plans struggle. Vancouver has a $1-billion treatment plant project looming in the next decade. “If we had that as well as a huge hit on infrastructure, we’d be really challenged.”

Other municipalities are really challenged, which has redoubled the call for changes to municipal funding. Jean Perrault, who is mayor of Sherbrooke, Que., and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, says more than 50 per cent of all infrastructure is owned by municipalities, but municipalities don’t always have access to the big sources of revenue. Municipalities’ main source of funding is property taxes, which comprise only eight per cent of tax revenues. When big-ticket public infrastructure items arise, municipalities have to ask for help from senior levels of government. Sewer and water systems compete with other infrastructure projects—roads, bridges, sports and cultural facilities—for this funding.

It would take more than $123 billion to address all of the nation’s infrastructure deficiencies, says Perrault. Even though many municipalities have moved to user-pay systems for water and sewer utilities, they’re facing big projects now, and find themselves competing with each other and against other infrastructure needs.

Workers help install a concrete pipe. [PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/kozmoat98]

Workers help install a concrete pipe.
PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/kozmoat98

Even backed by a letter from the provincial Ministry of Environment which talked about major environmental impact on the Rideau River from an “inevitable tank failure,” Merrickville (as of January) has been unsuccessful in five applications from three different infrastructure grant programs. When Struthers sees other municipalities get infrastructure grants for libraries and arenas, he says “God bless them. That’s important to them. Each of these projects has merit.” Elected officials do their best for their own constituencies. But he wishes there was a system that would scoot projects involving public health and safety to the top of the funding list. How, he asks, does anyone weigh the value of, say, a new library versus a sewage treatment plant? “It’s challenging for those upper levels of government to say ‘no’ to communities.”

As dire as this situation appears, the infrastructure problem is not insurmountable. As for water and sewage infrastructure, “It’s not a catastrophe because a lot of things will continue to work,” says Zechner. “A lot of pipes haven’t collapsed. There are leaks and breaks, but they’re still serviceable.” There is still some time.

Huge sections of pipe await installation. [PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/kozmoat98]

Huge sections of pipe await installation.
PHOTO: ©iStockphoto/kozmoat98

And that time is being used. Senior governments are exploring funding solutions, and may be able to take advantage of the current worldwide economic crisis to address the crumbling infrastructure. Municipalities and utilities are creating networks for sharing information on best practices. Provinces are requiring water and sewer utilities to be self-sustaining through user-pay systems. Municipalities are taking advantage of new technologies that allow them to repair leaking pipes without digging them up, thus stretching repair budgets. And more and more cities are adopting green technologies that will delay the entry of rainwater into their sewage systems following rainstorms, easing the burden on creaky systems.

Email the writer at:

Email a letter to the editor at:

Last Post


Classified Ads

Get the 2020 Veterans Benefits Guide today!

The 2020 guide includes helpful, up-to-date information on eligibility, applying, coverage + much more!

​A value of $19.99 but the guide is 
FREE for all Canadian Armed Forces members, veterans, families of veterans and members of the RCMP. ​