By Lauren Hornor and Mark Mattson

Joining cities of Kingston and Sudbury, Vancouver is on its way to providing real-time maps of the sewer system, and real-time sewer overflow alerts for the public. This move is a powerful indicator of change towards protecting swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone. Swim Drink Fish is excited about Vancouver’s decision and hopes Toronto is next.

According to Environment Canada, wastewater pollution is one of the largest sources of surface water pollution in the country1. It is also the largest barrier to clean water, and a person's right to swim, drink, and fish in waters across Canada. Combined Sewer Overflow Reports from Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (WSER) show that in 2017 alone, 39,060,422 cubic metres of raw sewage was deposited into Metro Vancouver regional waterbodies. And over 150,000,000 cubic metres of raw sewage combined with stormwater flows into Canadian waters every year from combined sewers.

Why Should I Care About Real Time Alerts?

Real-time alerts for sewage spills from the sewer system allow recreational water users to make informed decisions about when and how to interact with water. No one wants to swim in sewage, or splash and play in the water with their kids when a sanitary sewer is releasing millions of litres of untreated sewage from our homes and businesses into it. The wastewater discharged during a CSO contains sewage and water laden with bacteria, pathogens, viruses and parasites that can be harmful to the environment and human health.

We all have the right to know if there is pollution impacting the water we use for recreation. The public has the right to know when and where a sewage overflow is occurring, in real-time. Not only will this information help swimmers, anglers, paddlers and explorers make informed decisions about when to have contact with the water, it will also help all of us understand the scope of the problem we are facing. This information will help protect the health of all the water users in Metro Vancouver.


Kitsilano Beach closed due to E. coli in 2019. CTV News.


Real-time Sewage Spill Alerts are Here!

A goal of the Province of British Columbia is to “eliminate sewage overflows by 2050”. That is 30 years away. In the meantime, Metro Vancouver took a major step forward in advancing transparency and the public’s right to know when it announced that on October 26, 2020 that they will provide real-time, public information on sewer overflows through a map and opt-in email system. Click here to access the map.

Metro Vancouver’s real-time sewer overflow map will provide public notifications when untreated or partially treated wastewater is discharged into the environment as a result of sanitary sewer overflows or from wastewater treatment plants as a result of treatment interruptions. A future version of the map will include combined sewer overflows (CSOs) (combined sewers carry both sewage and stormwater in a single pipe).

The map is being developed in a phased approach. Metro Vancouver is currently in discussions with member municipalities about the opportunity to provide notification of combined sewer overflows on a future version of the map.

When a sewer overflow happens, water quality may exceed applicable human health and/or environmental guidelines for a period of up to 48 hours. The map will show both active overflows and overflows that have occurred in the last 48 hours (water quality typically returns to previous conditions after that period). Interested parties will be able to opt-in to receive e-mail alerts when a sewer overflow occurs.


Water Infrastructure Upgrades Are Sexy

While you might be thinking, “infrastructure isn’t sexy”, why do we care? Well do you know what actually isn’t sexy? Sewage. These exciting upgrades represent a significant move towards tackling sewage pollution in Vancouver and Canada.

Did you know Metro Vancouver collects and treats more than one billion litres of wastewater every day at their five treatment plants? Over the next five years, Vancouver is investing billions in critical infrastructure upgrades, including a significant number of projects that will help reduce overflows.

Another indication that Vancouver is prioritizing swimmable drinkable fishable water is the recently announced plans for upgrades, including treatment plant and sewer upgrades, back-up power supplies, and additional wastewater storage tanks.

The upgrades are also necessary if Vancouver hopes to move forward on new publicly accessible swimming piers and recreational water access.


Public interest in water activities is what drives these advancements

In June 2019 we recommended Metro Vancouver adopt a communication strategy to share notifications about sewage spills in real-time with the public. People want to know about sewage spills the moment that they are happening. The real-time sewer overflow map and email notifications system provides the perfect venue to share this information. (Previously, the ways for the public to find out when, where, why, or how much sewage was released from CSOs was to look up that information in the annual or biennial reports posted on the Metro Vancouver website, or performance dashboards posted on the Metro Vancouver website, or to submit Access to Information requests to Environment Canada).

The City of Vancouver has an extremely active waterfront that is accessible year-round. Sewer overflows are known to impact recreational water quality and increase a person's risk of waterborne illness if they come in contact with the polluted water. It is therefore essential to inform the recreational water users of these events year-round.

The real-time map and notification system for sewer overflows allow people on the water to head for land. If water users are going to the water soon, they can change plans and take the necessary precautions to protect their health. Above all, real-time alerts let us see how sewage spills directly affect our quality of life, making us want to support infrastructure improvements to prevent more spills from happening in the future.


On the Road to Swimmable Water in Vancouver; Recommendations

We congratulate Metro Vancouver for taking the groundbreaking commitment to implement a communications system that includes real-time alerts for sewage overflows and empowering recreational water users to make informed decisions about when, where, and how to interact with water and better protect public health. A future version of the map will include combined sewer overflows.

While Metro Vancouver is off to the races with the new map and email notifications systems, there are a few ways to achieve the gold standard for public transparency by enhancing the public reporting methodology to improve transparency of the sewer overflow map, and to better inform the public in real time.

  1. Tweet It! Metro Vancouver could consider utilizing a Twitter feed or equivalent to ensure public notifications are made immediately, or at least within four hours of the commencement of, awareness of, or reason to suspect the commencement of a release event.
  2. Clear Signage. At areas with high levels of recreation on or in the water, real time monitoring should be established at the physical location of the outfall, because not everyone brings their phone on the water. Check out Ottawa for a great example.
  3. Public Consultation. Members of the public should be able to periodically provide feedback, and have their feedback considered by sewage system owners/operators concerning the contents of local public alert protocols and the need for any improvements.


Flashing CSO sign along a water course in Ottawa. Ottawa Riverkeeper. Photo Credit: Oscar Durand from Blue Legacy, CBC News and Ecology Ottawa.


Installation of a Swimming Pier in Vancouver Would be a Beacon of Swimmable Water

How do we measure the swimmability of a city? With a deep water pier at the city’s urban center, of course!

Kingston already moved forward with the first Great Lakes deep water swimming pier after moving to real-time monitoring for all stormwater and sewage discharges. For decades the city of Kingston battled water pollution and now the Gord Edgar Downie Pier reclaims Kingston’s waterfront. The Gord Edgar Downie Pier at Breakwater Park is Canada’s first deep-water urban swimming pier and is the culmination of over 20 years of work by the Swim Drink Fish movement. Breakwater Park renovations include a new park promenade, steps and seating along the waterfront, landscaping and tree planting, significant accessibility improvements, and a pedestrian bridge for the pier.

Installation of a swimming pier in downtown Vancouver would symbolize that we take our access to swimmable water seriously. We are completely taken with HCMA’s renderings for Harbour Deck which inspire a conversation about what’s possible for Vancouver’s social spaces and re-establishing our connection with the marine environment, after all, Vancouverites are inherently water people!


HCMA Architecture + Design concept art for Harbour Deck proposal at Vancouver's Coal Harbour



1 Canada, Environment and Climate Change. “Wastewater Pollution.” Education and awareness. aem, January 27, 2004.

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