THE OUTFALL OF DECISIONS (published article, Influents Spring 2013)

The Outfall of Decisions

Influents Spring 2013, Official Publication of the Water Environment Association of Ontario.

The Outfall of Decisions: how decision-making

strategies affect the clarity of solutions


Each time a Torontonian flushes the toilet, the city is another step closer to footing a $330-

million bill. In a city of 2.6 million people, that’s an expense of $127 for each one of its residents.

And that’s just to replace two aging pumping stations that feed sewage directly to the

Ashbridges Bay Treatment Plant.

“Toronto Water has a large capital budget and our projects in the wastewater plants are

among the largest and most complex in the Division. We have started the process of catching up

on our backlog of capital work but much still needs to be done,” says Colin Marshall, Manager of

the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant. “We have aging infrastructure that we’re trying

to improve, like our pumping stations. One of these pump stations was initially built in 1919 and

the other was built in the early 1970s. They are now approaching the end of their useful life and so

tough decisions have to be made: do we refurbish what is there or do we build a new single pumping

station to replace them?”

This significant expenditure is only one of many upgrades the city of Toronto has had to

put on the backburner. And like many of them, it will require attention and resources at a moment’s

notice. How decision makers approach the process of balancing the many factors when making their

spending decisions can be the difference between a prudent choice and a wasteful one.

Decisions governing environmental protection are often a product of their time

It is not obvious to previous generations what consequences an outfall will have on

the environment. Before the world war, the environment was hardly on the radar. But when

environmental topics come up today, buzz words like “conservation”, “issues” and “management”

indicate that times have changed. Dwindling natural resources are now being safeguarded, largely

due to more rigorous regulations.

When the city council voted in 1940 for the partial treatment of the outfall at Ashbridges

Bay, it meant the city’s wastewater would bypass secondary treatment and instead opt for the

chlorination of the primary treatment discharge. The motivation behind the decision was to reduce

the total cost of operation. The rationale that Lake Ontario would simply dilute the pollution from

the outfall gained approval. The council figured the North Toronto treatment plant, which used

secondary treatment from the very beginning, would be sufficient— especially since it was one of

the first facilities to do so in North America in the 1920s. According to the Toronto archives, full

treatment would have cost Ashbridges Bay an additional $4 million better spent elsewhere. It was

only in the 1960s that Ashbridges Bay upgraded to secondary treatment.

It seemed harmless enough at the time, but today, discharging toxic effluent is not an option

anymore, and for good reason.

The Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations mandate stringent protocols against “acutely

lethal” pollutants—specifically effluent that at 100% concentration kills more than 50% of the

rainbow trout subjected to it during a 96-hour bench-scale test.

Yet only last year, raw wastewater dumping was surprisingly endorsed by a coalition of

marine scientists in Victoria, British Columbia.

“The truth is, we’re in a very fortunate position here in Victoria in which to discharge sewage

into a marine setting,” said Tom Pedersen, director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, as

told to National Post in an article on July 23, 2012. “It’s mostly organic matter, and Mother Nature’s

really good at processing that.”

This was shortly discredited too.

Victoria is now in the process of building a new wastewater treatment plant; its operational

cost is expected to reach between $14 million and $15 million annually. Dr. Pedersen deems the

decision an unnecessary expenditure and sees it as mere environmental ideologies of voters and the

politicians that pander to them.

The jury is out whether its efficiency will justify its cost, but the decision was made based

on the cautionary approach that all pollution has deleterious effects, to some extent. The ocean

environment—whether or not it is good at processing waste—is not an exception.

But while Victoria, B.C can afford such a forward thinking upgrade right now, not every

city or town is as fortunate. Halifax, for example, current only screens gross solids from its effluent

before discharging into the ocean. Montreal only applies primary treatment for the outfall going into

the St. Lawrence River. Cash-strapped locales need a bit of creativity to come up with alternative

pocket-friendly solutions..

When you don’t have resources, be resourceful

A treatment plant manager in the tiny rural community of Roseburg, Oregon knows that in

their plant, they will not have the funding to fix major breakdowns.

Their outfalls flowing into the nearby South Umpqua River were inevitably

poor. Underperforming and out of compliance, the Department of Environmental Quality required

them to upgrade, but the town of about 500 residents could not cough up the $800 million needed to

bring them up to standard.

What Oregon lacked in finances, it made up for with vast available land. Constructed

wetlands and lagoons are a natural way to simulate anaerobic treatment of wastewater and can act

as an alternative wastewater treatment process instead of a standard treatment plant. By building

inexpensive lagoons and wetlands, the town was able to meet their needs.

Other small towns and rural communities have come up with creative solutions too. Some

have opted for the separation of wastewater flows to adjust treatment according to contaminants.

Flow decentralization increases efficiency and reduces the flow in very small facilities where capacity

is an issue. Some have begun campaigns to use appliances that conserve water and have mandated

re-use of wastewater for non-potable purposes such as watering lawns.

But not every good opportunity has a happy ending. Sometimes disastrous consequences

result from biting off more than you can chew.

If you build it, they will come—but at what cost?

When business opportunity knocked on the town doors of Burley, Idaho, it seemed too good

to ignore. Even when they knew their treatment plant was out of shape, it was nothing a little elbow

grease couldn’t solve.

The 10,000 residents forked over a sewage fee hike of $45.50 per household when their

treatment facility completed its upgrade in 2007.

The fee was only $3.26 when the project began nine years ago, all in the name of attracting

even more businesses. And attract them it did.

Jobs and businesses flourished in 2003 when the town had acquired an additional industrial

treatment plant. The town routed the wastes of two milk processing companies—a flow-intensive

industry—to the functional, albeit old wastewater facility.

The state had also given a $499,000 grant for additional infrastructure needs, which

included a wastewater pipe junction to connect to their newest business prospect, a food processing

plant that had set up shop. But the old industrial plant had reached its pollution limit and was soon

out of compliance; it just couldn’t handle all that milk waste and so the plant fell apart.

The force of the flow punched holes inside the bioreactors, rendering them useless. As a

band-aid solution, the industrial waste was promptly redirected to the primary residential plant. But

this only overwhelmed its system too and both plants were forced to dump untreated wastewater

into Snake River, violating their permits and totaling $6 million in damages and upgrade costs.

Moral of the story: Saying yes to a good opportunity one is ill-equipped to handle is a recipe

for disaster. Knowing the limits of a plant’s flow capacity before using it is vital to success.

Perhaps the best example in Toronto’s history of a decision-maker who got it right is Public

Works Commissioner Roland Caldwell Harris, not that everyone thought so, especially at the time.

Harris had planning foresight that Toronto could just barely afford when he took office in 1912.

Many criticized Harris’s decision to equip the Prince Edward Viaduct with a future subway

deck as recklessly wasteful. Yet sixty years later, Toronto thanked him as the Bloor-Danforth line

opened without any extensive reconstruction. When he later designed the North Toronto treatment

plant, he wanted it to blend in with its surroundings. When the facility opened in 1929, it could have

very well been a quaint little village. It was seen as a frivolous $1-million plan considering Canada

was at the beginning of the Great Depression.

His other masterpiece, the Victoria Park Pumping Station (later renamed R.C. Harris Water

Filtration Plant) earned him the moniker “the water czar”. Once regarded as architectural fluff, it is

now an elegant part of Toronto’s heritage that services almost 40% of the city’s water supply to this

day. All this because of Harris’ insight to build it as a scalable facility that stood the test of time.

The importance of making long-term decisions while considering current limitations is a key

aspect of good public works decision-making. Projects often cost more in the long run when funds

are not initially spent wisely. A city’s future growth must be considered when planning treatment

projects and a realistic assessment of what can and cannot be done is a matter of collaboration

between the leaders of the water and wastewater industry, its workers, and the people they serve.


I would like to thank Colin Marshall for taking the time to help me make this article possible.
His vast knowledge of Ashbridges Bay Water Treatment plant and his more-than-happy-to-help
attitude certainly made the writing process go smoothly. I would also like to thank Rob Moysey, my
journalism tutor.