Public health and environment at risk as Vancouver rushes to protect its sewers from the climate

Documents reveal bubbling sewage has surfaced from a sanitary sewer at the Coquitlam-Burnaby border more than a dozen times, raising questions about both the long-term survival of salmon in a course water supply and how Metro Vancouver will cope with aging infrastructure in the face of storms

Straddling the border of Coquitlam and Burnaby, Stoney Creek is the largest tributary of the Brunette watershed and one of the most important spawning grounds for coho and chum salmon in Vancouver.

Rising from groundwater on the southeast slope of Burnaby Mountain, the upper reaches of the creek flow through a dense neighborhood on the Burnaby-Coquitlam border, eventually emptying into the Brunette River. Along the way, it is home to over 60 species of birds, a variety of mammals, and countless insects and plants.

It is a vital stream in the Fraser River watershed, but in recent years, documents obtained from Freedom of Information requests to the City of Coquitlam and Metro Vancouver reveal that waters of Bubbling sewers have surfaced more than a dozen times from a nearby main line, cluttering the roads with paper toilets and human waste and raising questions about the long-term survival of spawning salmon in the tributary of the Brunette River.

“Stoney Creek has more salmon coming up there than all the others put together,” said John Templeton, head of the Stoney Creek Environment Committee. “I am seriously worried if we will continue to have salmon. ”

As intensification plans in neighborhoods such as Burquitlam and Lougheed Town Center seek to bring tens of thousands of people upriver from Stoney Creek, stream keepers like Templeton fear the gains his group has made in rejuvenating l salmon habitat is starting to decline.

The pollution that drains into urban streams in Metro Vancouver ranges from oil spills dating back to illegal spills on construction sites to heavy metals from car brake linings and toxic particles from washed tires in streams in the fall – the so-called “first flush effect”.

“I saw some shiny silver coho that should have spawned, but they died from the toxins,” Templeton said. “If we get to the point where we turn it into a total concrete jungle, these fish won’t be able to handle it. ”

But one of the worst threats to salmon, according to Templeton, are sewer overflows.

After Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff spotted evidence of algae growth in Stoney Creek, they asked Metro Vancouver’s liquid waste department to step in to test the waters, according to department head Rick. Gallilee. Some of the numbers that came back were surprising.

Field notes obtained through an access to information request show that a test team in Metro Vancouver found levels of E. coli reaching 8,664 MPN (most likely number of viable cells in a 100 milliliter sample).

That’s significantly more than the Canadian Recreational Water Quality Guidelines, which recommend closing swimming areas like Buntzen Lake or White Pine Beach when levels exceed 200 E. coli bacteria per 100 milliliters.

“Medical spill? Interconnection? ”The testers wrote next to their results.

But while Gallilee said “E. coli is basically fecal matter,” it could be anything from humans to birds and dogs.

“We don’t know the source of this,” he said.


The overflows near Stoney Creek prompted Metro Vancouver to include the expansion of the nearby Stoney Creek main sewer system as part of its proposed 2022-2026 capital plan, with modeling currently underway to identify bottlenecks.

But it’s not just a Coquitlam or Burnaby issue – such spillovers affect weak spots in the metro system. In 2017, more than 39 million cubic meters of untreated wastewater entered regional water bodies in Metro Vancouver. Much of the overflow occurs in aging municipal pipelines in Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster, where combined sewers mix sanitary wastewater from toilets and drains with stormwater.

In response, the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change asked Metro Vancouver to roll out a real-time sewer overflow map, which went live in late 2020.

When a major storm hits, the map lights up as stormwater seeps into and overflows sanitary sewers at various locations in Metro Vancouver’s 21 municipalities.

In older sewer systems like Vancouver, Metro Vancouver spends billions of dollars to separate sanitary and storm connections in a system that for years has channeled toilets and stormwater into a single pipe system.

But just because sanitary and storm sewers were built separately in municipalities like Coquitlam doesn’t mean they can’t be submerged as intense rainfall combines with faulty connections, oily plugs and broken pipes.

Metro Vancouver projections predict that climate change will cause a modest increase in precipitation in the region by 2050, but most is expected to fall during extreme precipitation events, putting more pressure on weak points in the network. of sewers.

But Gallilee says prioritizing a place like Stoney Creek – where the community has come together to protect the waterway – over other neighborhoods raises fundamental questions of fairness.

Namely, who gets timely sewage improvements before heavy rains made worse by climate change trigger more overflows?

“It is happening everywhere. It’s one of the biggest challenges right now, ”said Gallilee.

He added: “It becomes an expensive proposition very quickly.”


Beneath the streets of Metro Vancouver, a labyrinth of approximately 14,000 kilometers of pipelines guides much of the area’s sewage and stormwater to treatment plants such as the one found at Annacis Island in Richmond.

“It is quite fundamental for the functioning of our cities. We all rely on it every time we turn on a faucet, take a shower, use the bathroom, ”said Lisa Dominato, Vancouver Councilor and Vice Chair of Metro’s Liquid Waste Committee.

“We don’t necessarily understand the complexity of the system and its importance from a public health perspective.”

Dominato says Metro Vancouver and its municipalities are in a race to ensure its sanitary sewer system can withstand both the impacts of precipitation brought on by climate change and the pressures of a burgeoning population .

“As we see with climate change, increased rains, this can be a factor. We saw it in Vancouver, we saw it in Coquitlam, ”she said.

Earlier this month, Metro planners predicted that the region would add one million people to its population, bringing the total to 3.8 million by 2050. With every new person to the Metro area, the footprint on the sewer system is increasing.

But not all problems come from towers and clouds in the sky – an even more insidious challenge plays out underground in unexpected and often difficult to reach places.

Metro Vancouver and city staff are engaged in a never-ending battle against tree roots, which fracture these lifelines in all directions. From above, faulty manholes add to the overflow problem, letting stormwater enter what is supposed to be a closed system.

To make matters worse, generations of home renovations have led countless private homeowners to drill holes in bad sewer lines, often to connect a drain from a gutter or foundation.

When a major storm hits, that precipitation and rising groundwater seeps into the cracked sanitary pipes usually reserved for our toilets, sinks and greasy habits. Sewers are quickly overwhelmed and, with nowhere to go but up and out, send used toilet paper and dung to neighborhoods and local waterways.

“If you look at the rest of the piping throughout the system, most of it is privately owned, and most of it is never monitored,” Gallilee said, adding that in the wetter months, Metro Vancouver reports that a lot of stormwater enters the sanitation system, the majority coming from privately owned drains.

How to access fractured and poorly installed pipes under private land is a major issue that cities in North America are just beginning to grapple with as infrastructure nears the end of its lifespan.

“It’s a problem that’s happening everywhere,” Gallilee said. “This is one of the biggest challenges at the moment. “

* This story is the first in the series Under Your Feet: How Fatbergs, Broken Drains, and Climate Change Threaten Metro Vancouver’s Sewer System. Check back next week for part 2.

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