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A Paradise Above the Surface, A Dirty Secret Below
November 23, 2015

The last weekend of October, I had the pleasure of visiting Canada’s beautiful West Coast.


Stepping off the plane from Toronto into Victoria’s crisp, coastal air was a welcome escape. The island was in the peak of fall, a palette of warm oranges, pinks, and reds.

On my last day in Victoria, I took a leisurely walk down Dallas Road along the Pacific Ocean. The path was alive with islanders, their hands clutching warm coffees, smiles on their faces, dogs playing around their feet. The ocean to my left stretched on as far as the eye could see; mountains, barely a shadow on the horizon, were dusted lightly with snow that hinted winter was nearly upon us.

Looking out into the ocean in this temperate paradise, it was difficult to believe that the city held a not-so-beautiful secret below its surface.

Celebrating Spring in New Zealand
November 20, 2015

Photo Credit: Tom Hall, Flickr

Photo Credit: Tom Hall, Flickr

As the Northern Hemisphere braces for winter, the Southern Hemisphere begins to heat up.

It’s a familiar experience: tall trees shake off the crunchy, brown remnants of a long winter as vibrant green shoots begin to stretch their way towards the light. Birds and animals peek out of their burrows, tentatively testing their unused voices. Sleepy, fat insects shake off the long winter as they stretch their summer legs, buzzing lazily around young flowers basking in the coming warmth.

New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on our planet this time of year.


Things That Wash Ashore: LA’s Sewage Rupture
November 17, 2015

At a time when most of North America is wrapping up beach monitoring for the season, one U.S. Waterkeeper is in full swing.

In Los Angeles, people are in the water year round. And you can hardly blame them: the coast of LA is a stunning place, full of unique and diverse natural regions. Miles of coastline, offshore islands, and even a mountain range dot its shores. This is a beach lover’s paradise, and there is one type of beachgoer that is particularly prominent here: surfers.


Cold Water Safety: 8 Rules to live by
October 15, 2015

Sponsored by PortsToronto

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Autumn is often referred to as the last and loveliest season, the crest of the year’s beauty.

The allure of the light, the leaves, the water is irresistible. In Lake Ontario’s watershed, we are spoiled silly with the season’s splendor. Despite the shortened days, our waterways are still abuzz with recreational activity. Fishing, paddling, boating, SUPping and surfing are at a high point in the fall as both beauty and abundance intensify on our lakes and rivers.

The warm orange glow of the season can be deceiving, as water temperatures on the Great Lakes are quickly dropping. Consequently, autumn (and early spring) are the most dangerous times of year for boaters and paddlers to be out on the water.

Looking downstream – Breaking Montreal’s sewage habit
October 14, 2015

It was in the middle of the summer that we started to notice something funny going on in Quebec. The number of Quebecois Swim Guide users jumped from a few thousand in 2014 to 40,000 to date in 2015.

And it was not remote, pristine lakes these Quebecers were interested in.

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.

It didn’t make a lot of sense that 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.


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.