If the new Hamilton Council is planning any more in the series of priority planning sessions, It might be wise to check in with Hamilton Water, who are developing a $1 Billion -plus plan to tackle what might be the biggest infrastructure headache in the city—the deteriorating condition of the city sewer system. Hamilton has already spent over $600 million on the Woodward Avenue Wastewater plant to allow it to significantly improve its treatment of wastewater before it is discharged into the Bay, but the network of sewer pipes leading to the Woodward plant is in some cases in bad shape. A consultant report says some of the city’s wastewater infrastructure is more than 100 years old and still in service. Last August, as the previous city council was heading into its pre-election lame duck period. Hamilton Water presented two reports to the outgoing council. One described the need for a $ 1 billion long range rehabilitation program to untangle the mixture of stormwater from sewage waste water that makes up about 30 percent of the city’s underground system as well as other enhancements. While the $1 Billion is calculated to be spread out over a 20-year span, $367 million is recommended to be spent in the near term– 0-10 years. The second report suggested the Environment Ministry could become an obstacle to the city’s ambitious plans for new development and growth if investments aren’t made to the city’s wastewater infrastructure.
Study to measure impact of LRT development
The city initially commissioned a study, to determine how the city’s water and wastewater system would be able to cope with the explosion of development, much of it residential, that will accompany the construction of the LRT. The study determined that the system would be adequate in dry weather, but there was significant downstream flood risk in wet weather. In last year’s council report staff wrote, “Due to increased urbanization, growth intensification, and increases in the frequency and intensity of rainfall events due to climate change, the original design capacity of the City’s legacy CSS (Combined Sewer System) has become strained, resulting in the CSS capacity being overloaded more frequently during higher volume rain events.”
Storms cause discharges of untreated wastewater
While in recent years public attention was focused on the infamous 24 billion liter sewage spill into Chedoke Creek over a four year period ending in 2019 due to an undetected equipment malfunction; the fact is that significant discharges of untreated sewage take place every time there is a heavy rain in Hamilton. The Combined Sewer Overflow tanks fill up in a heavy rain, the volume is more than the Wastewater plant can handle and the untreated water goes direct to the Harbour. Since 2020, discharges totaling nearly 11 billion litres have occurred, and that only accounts for combined sewer overflow (CSO) tanks that are equipped with measuring capability, some of Hamilton’s CSO’s in the older centre city and in Dundas have no metering capability, so the actual discharge is greater. The city averages over 100 bypass or overflow events each year.
Environment Ministry could block or delay planned growth
There is an added urgency to tackle the infrastructure issue. The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) appears to be growing impatient with Hamilton’s overall wastewater record. That impatience was most recently in evidence when the Ministry set a hard deadline for Hamilton to complete the dredging of Chedoke Creek, the scene of the Sewergate event. The second staff report from last August, warns the Ministry could start withholding relatively easy approvals for various development projects, writing, “that process is more recently being impacted by changing regulatory and public views over our inherited wastewater system and the environmental and community impacts of combined sewer overflows (CSOs).”In other words, development could be held back due to our poor wastewater infrastructure.
The report goes on to spell out the need to get the Ministry onside as the city gets ready for rapid development at a time when its wastewater system is vulnerable. “It is proposed that the City should re-establish our commitment to make large wastewater investments that are focused on protecting the environment beyond the regulatory framework, in order to rebuild a modern sewer system that is reflective of newer design standards. These steps will promote a stronger, more trusting relationship (our emphasis) with our local regulatory agency and encourage a smoother growth and development approvals process for both private and public infrastructure.”
New apartment towers to install onsite storage
To underscore the vulnerability of the current wastewater system, staff are recommending that the developers of the new ultra-high rise towers that are expected to proliferate all over Hamilton be mandated to install wastewater storage tanks onsite that would allow the gradual release of stormwater into the system after the storms pass.
The long term plan would see the gradual separation of sanitary and storm sewers starting with addressing issues in areas at high risk for flooding. Sewer work would, where possible be timed to coincide with planned major street reconstruction. The work that was announced last week to reduce sewage flows in West Hamilton and the Red hill Creek are among the early phases of what will be a 20-year ongoing project.
One of the next steps in the plan will be to develop a long-term financing strategy, but it’s clear that water and wastewater issues will dominate capital budgets in Hamilton for many years to come.
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