August/September 2000

Water testing projects few and far between
Ontario Sewage System Failures (chart)
How safe is your well water?
The next concern - irrigation water

The dirty little secret of municipal 'bypass' treatments

The Sewage Double Standard

While farmers face huge fines for discharging manure into watercourses, Ontario cities are routinely dumping sewage overflows into the province's rivers

Downstream from the lake, the swans, the upscale boutiques and the world-famous Shakespearean Festival Theatre is a darker side of Stratford. For, in 1996, this city of 28,000 in the centre of western Ontario held an unenviable position near the top of a list of cities in the province where sewage bypassed treatment.

On 44 occasions reported to the provincial ministry of the environment that year, the Stratford sewage treatment plant was overwhelmed by rising waters, the regular flow of sewage plus storm runoff from streets and parking lots. When the system threatened to back up into houses, the treatment plant workers pulled a relief valve, causing the overflow to "bypass" treatments in the plant at the south end of the city and run into the Avon River, only a few kilometers from its source to the north.

Sewage plant operators are required to report a bypass to the Ministry of Environment, which in turn warns water plant operators downstream to close their intakes because a flush of contaminated water is heading their way.

Stratford isn't alone, or even at the top of the list of legal municipal polluters in the province. Nor was 1996 a particularly outstanding year, its sewage plant operators say, but rather an indication of a long-term shortcoming. The bypassing had been going on for years. Major spending efforts have been made to correct it. In 1996, municipal sewage system operators in Ontario reported that they bypassed treatment on 850 separate occasions. They also reported 265 "accidental" spills.

In 1999, the ministry's statistics report 489 bypasses, as well as an additional 198 "accidental spills," no details of which were provided.

A story not being told
Agricultural manure spills are no small matter in this province. Sometimes farmers are charged and face huge fines if they discharge manure into watercourses. The Ministry of the Environment keeps a close record of agricultural effluent spills, even though the reported spill itself might be as small as a shovelful of manure fallen from a spreader onto a roadside. While animal agriculture's critics charge that farming must clean up its act and treat animal waste the same way that human waste is treated, it's apparent to some farm supporters that a double standard is in place.

"I was aware that Stratford was bad. I guess it is part of the whole rest of the story that's not being told," says John Alderman, vice-president of the Hog Group at Cold Springs Farm, Thamesford. "It seems to me that (the way that human sewage is handled) is a closely held secret."

The long-term criticism of how farmers handle liquid manure has affected Alderman directly. Cold Springs has been fighting a legal battle over one of its new barns built in the municipality of South Perth. A nearby resident obtained a court order forbidding Cold Springs from hauling manure from the barn. In effect, the court prevents a single pig from being raised in that facility.

"The public has a warm, fuzzy feeling because it sends its effluent to a sewage treatment plant," Alderman says, pointing out that somehow, in the public mind, it doesn't matter if a four-inch rainfall knocks the plant out of commission. "That wouldn't be acceptable in a farm situation. I have to allow for extra rain coming into the storage. The same rules should apply in town," Alderman says.

The city of Stratford has spent a considerable amount of money in recent years to buttress itself against storm water. Big tanks with the ability to contain millions of gallons of storm water have been constructed. Yet last year, a relatively dry season, there were still six rainstorm "events" which resulted in a sewage bypass. "Stratford has made huge progress since 1996, and they should be commended for it. But are four to six bypasses acceptable?" Alderman asks. "Municipalities need to test and monitor septic systems. And municipalities need to find ways to get those four for six bypasses down to nothing."

Worse still than Stratford in 1996 were four other municipalities in Ontario. At the top was Niagara Falls with 94 bypasses, followed by St. Catharines with 85. That year, the City of Toronto's antiquated sewer system was overwhelmed 70 times by rainwater runoff entering the system. Also in the top 10 was the town of Haldimand, with a population of 40,000 and 40 bypasses of the sewage treatment plants in its smaller communities.

"Nobody wants to touch it"
In speaking with the people who run the treatment plants, Better Farming found that the bypasses were considered to be part of the business. The Perth County Health Unit isn't particularly concerned. "There are no private drinking wells because it's farm land and it's in a valley," says Donna Taylor, director of the environment for the health unit. "Obviously it's raw sewage that's going out so there are concerns, but there are no drinking wells in the area. I don't have any idea about irrigation that is going on."

Paul Verkley of Atwood, who is chairman of both the Ontario Federation of Agriculture's environment committee and the Ontario Farm Environment Coalition nutrient management working group, doesn't share this complacency. He gets furious when he reads about municipalities bypassing their systems to put sewage directly into Lake Huron. The town of Goderich's sewage had bypassed its treatment plant more than 13 times by the end of June but, notes Verkley, "Of course, that doesn't pollute the beach. They still find ways of blaming the farmer as well."

Municipal systems are being improved, with money coming from the province, and Verkley would like to see the same kind of dollars towards the farm community when it upgrades. "We want the same consideration for remedial action as the municipalities."

He is also concerned about rural septic systems. "It is a huge problem. It is so big, nobody wants to touch it." He'd like to sees a renewal of the old Clean Up Rural Beaches (CURB) program, which aimed money at rural septic system repairs. That program, launched by the Liberals, was canned when the Progressive Conservative government took power.

Oxford County cow-calf operator and former dairyman Keith Wiffen used to get in trouble with the conservation authority and environment ministry when beaches at the Pittock Lake reservoir at Woodstock were closed because of pollution. He was a suspect because the Thames River, which fuels Pittock, runs the length of his farm and he ran livestock near the unfenced creek.

Wiffen would show them pictures of the debris left hanging from bushes and fences after high water had receded -- debris that, to put it delicately, isn't part of the refuse from a farm where cows are bred to have calves -- and the officials would go away. Upstream from Wiffen's farm was the outlet for the water treatment lagoons serving the village of Tavistock.

He now fences his cattle out of the stream. "We aren't protecting the river, we are protecting the cows." The river at that point is beyond redemption, he thinks. He can count the minnows in it with the fingers on both hands.

"Let's put the blame where the blame comes from," he says. "I'd like to show some of these people that are screaming what this river looks like when it gets warm." When the stream runs full, it is six to eight feet wide and six feet deep. In the summer, it is stagnant and filled with plumes of green algae, a sign that the water is polluted.

Tavistock cleans up
Tavistock has had its troubles and has solved some of them. Town mayor David Oliphant says the Ontario Clean Water Agency, a crown corporation, wasn't providing satisfactory service for the $30,000 fee it was charging to run the sewage system, so two years ago it was handed over to the county of Oxford. Robert Walton, Oxford's manager of water and waste water services, says several million dollars have been spent in Tavistock in the last dozen years and the only "bypass", when water escaped treatment because of heavy rains, was during a "one-in-a-100- year" storm in 1992.

The newest certificate of compliance from the environment ministry allows the town of Tavistock to discharge the effluent collected over the previous 12 months into the river between November to April. "They research when the stream has the best assimilative capacity," Walton says. In effect, the town is allowed to put its waste water into the river when it is cold. Ironically, in those same months, farmers are not supposed to spread manure on the frozen ground.

Surface water pollution "is a society wide problem," not just agriculture's fault, concedes Walton, who grew up on a farm. "You have to take a comprehensive look at these things. You get people saying the large factory farms are the problem. Here in Oxford County the large factories have to do nutrient management plans. Is that to say there are no problems with the guy who has 10 cows on 15 acres? He's the one who has likely got them running through the stream."

Liquid manure systems have been bashed by critics both inside and outside the farming community, with some demanding that farms put in sewage treatment facilities similar to municipalities. Cold Spring's Farm's Alderman agrees that building a sewage treatment plant might be more economical than buying a lot of land at $5,000 an acre on which to spread manure. But he argues that smaller livestock operations wouldn't be able to do this. Livestock units larger than the biggest farms seen now would likely be necessary in order to make the treatment of sewage economical.

Certainly, forcing animal agriculture to be scattered onto small family-sized units across the countryside prevents the industry from using new technology, he asserts.

And with the larger units and municipal-type sewage treatment, there would still be bypasses, accidental spills and certificates of compliance to govern discharges, just like there are with the sewage systems in towns and cities now. BF

© copyright 2000 AgMedia Co-operative Inc..

Water testing projects few and far between

At the north end of the village of Blyth in northern Huron County, where Lower Blyth Brook flows under Highway 4, watershed stewardship technician Doug Hocking of the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority is testing for pollutants. The stream is flowing high and fast from a heavy rain two nights before.

Hocking wears his hip waders low; he won't be stepping into the water today. When the water is murky and fast, you sample from the bridge, says Hocking. That's because you can't see what's coming at you in the water if you don't stand in it. "You might get torpedoed and badly hurt," he says.

It's not just large debris in the current that can be dangerous. Hocking wears rubber gloves to protect his hands from contamination. He isn't always successful. Several years ago, he reverted to wearing prescription glasses because of persistent eye infections. The saline solution that his contact lenses were stored in wasn't strong enough to kill the bacteria and viruses. At high or low levels, there are things in the water that you just don't want to be in contact with.

Hocking tests water in Lower Blyth Creek as part of a watershed-wide project funded by Human Resources Development Canada. There are about 30 partners in the project, including farm groups, municipalities, ministries and businesses. Kim Delaney of the Maitland River Conservation Authority says water sampling is filling in an "information gap." Even when all the partners pooled their resources, they didn't have information about the quality and quantity of water flowing in the brook.

Hocking is testing for fecal streptococcus and pseudomonas, which are indicators of aeruginosa, a pathogen. All three are found in fecal matter from warm-blooded animals, but there is no way at present to determine if they are from animal or human sources. Where they are found, other parasites, viruses and disease-causing organisms may be present.

If a water sampler like Hocking were a bird, he would likely be declared an endangered species, for such projects are few and far between. His current work at the conservation authority is a short-term contract and you have to take what you can get, says Hocking.

He was involved in the Rural Beach Strategy Program at the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority, which preceded the province-wide Clean Up Rural Beaches (CURB) program. Hocking notes that CURB incentives encouraged farmers to fence cattle from streams. But most of the money went to help rural property owners rejuvenate their septic systems, which were often hooked directly into field tiles. When the current provincial government took power, CURB was axed. BF

© copyright 2000 AgMedia Co-operative Inc..