Something funny started happening in Quebec in the summer of 2015. The number of Quebecois Swim Guide users jumped from a few thousand in 2014 to 40,000 people part-way through the summer.

The majority of these new users were Montrealers, people from Laval and Quebec City, river people, looking for places to swim, surf, have a beach day on the St. Lawrence.

Thousands of people were interested in recreational water spots in and around Montreal – a city famous for, well let’s face it, poop-water. What was going on?

Getting back to the river

“Montreal is an island that has forgotten it is an island,” Mayor of Montreal Denis Coderre

Swim Guide only has a handful of beaches in Quebec, most situated on the St. Lawrence, Lac des Deux Montagnes, and Riviere des Prairies around Montreal. But they are getting a lot of traction.

Water has always been part of what it means to be a Montrealer. The city is an island after all.

In the last few decades Montrealers have been reclaiming their river as their own. Paddlers, swimmers, sunbathers found their way back to the water. A river surf culture emerged.

There have also been marked improvements to the water quality around the city over the last few decades, thanks to the hard work and dedication of environmentalists, citizens, the city, and the province. Things like hookups for homes to the wastewater system and storm water runoff retention basins have made a real difference. The Jean-R. Marcotte wastewater treatment plant is undergoing major upgrades to make it an ozonation treatment facility by 2018. A commendable move.

Most of the time the waters around Montreal are clean enough to enjoy again. Enthusiasm, pride, and love for the waters is on the up and up. The three official beaches are continuously increasing in usership. In 2015, the city announced that the water was so clean and the public demand so high, two more beaches were going to be added in time for its 375th birthday party. The hot spots for surfing are also going to be made more accessible for surfers and spectators alike, and access to the waterfront is now a high priority.

Montreal’s sewage habit

In September 2015, Montreal announced that construction work near the Bonaventure Expressway required that a major sewer interceptor be drained and 8 billion litres of untreated sewage be released into the St. Lawrence. The reaction on both the US and Canadian banks of the river, as well as from people upstream and downstream of the problem, has been outrage.

Citizens have taken to the river to protest the move and nearly 100,000 people signed the protest petition. The pushback has been so strong that the move was sent to the Federal Government for a decision.

But the city insists there is no other way.

Montreal has a very bad and long standing habit of dumping things in the fast moving waters of the St. Lawrence and relying on the swift current to hurry the foulness away. And while there were numerous contaminants swept into the river over the years, sewage has been a constant, leaking from the city in jaw dropping volumes.

Montreal was the last major city in North America to start to treat its sewage (that is, of the cities that actually treat their sewage). In the 1960s, the city was releasing upwards of 400 million gallons (1.5 billion litres) of raw sewage a day into Riviere des Prairies and the St. Lawrence River. It wasn’t until 1984 that the city had any wastewater treatment, and the full functionality of the Jean-R. Marcotte plant didn’t happen until 1996.

Montreal’s Jean R. Marcotte wastewater treatment plant is the third largest plant in the world and treats 45% of Quebec’s wastewater. The hitch is the plant only provides primary treatment to sewage. In other words, the water leaving the mega Jean-R. Marcotte wastewater treatment plant is still full of contaminants, pharmaceuticals, pathogens, and anything else primary filtration and treatment can’t remove.

The sewage report card issued to Montreal in 2004 by the Sierra Club was an F-, which is the same grade given to municipalities, such as Victoria, B.C., that do not treat their sewage whatsoever.

Looking downstream

Montreal has had a hard time kicking its dependence on the river to whisk away its effluent. And its plan to release 8 billion litres of sewage into the river isn’t helping the city break the pattern.

While the waters directly around the city have improved, what’s happening downstream is a different story. The St. Lawrence River moves pretty fast past Montreal, with a flow rate of about 6,000 to 7,000 cubic meters per second. In fact, recreational water users around the city are warned to stay out of the water for only 24 hours after a rainfall, while the rule of thumb for other water bodies is at least 48 to 72 hours.

The Jean R. Marcotte plant is situated at the far east end of the island, which means the partially treated sewage flows away from the city. Sewage, whether from the Jean-R. Marcotte plant, or from the 150 combined sewer pipes pouring into the waters around the island from Montreal is greatly impacting the health of everything and everyone downstream.

The excuse that there is no other choice but to discharge 8 billion litres of untreated sewage into one of the country’s most important waterways doesn’t hold water. Not in 2015. Not when there has to be another solution other than sending our wastewater into the waters we swim, drink, and fish in.

Our president and Waterkeeper, Mark Mattson, has called into question the legality of the discharge.

Mattson asks a vital question:

Are we a country that dumps sewage into our waterways because we don’t think we have a “choice”? Or are we a country that finds a better way?

Montreal has a great opportunity to show it can break the habit of relying on the river to clean up its waste.

Decision

On October 14th, 2015 Federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel announced the decision by Environment Canada to suspend Montreal’s plan to release 8 billion litres of sewage into the river. Lebel called for an independent panel of experts to conduct an in-depth study of the environmental impact of the sewage dump on the St. Lawrence ecosystem. The decision to suspend the sewage dump was prompted by environmental concerns as well as by the outcry from the public.

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