Pellerin: In Ottawa, suddenly sewers are sexy – and rightly so

In the past, when I was trying to find out how infrastructure money was being spent and who was responsible for decisions, I never got a straight answer from anyone about anything.

Combined Sewage Storage Tunnel (CSST) - November 2019 Rock breaking at the bottom of the shaft from within the EWT. City of Ottawa

I don’t know who else is excited by Ottawa’s newest sewer but man, am I happy. Not just because heavy rains will no longer mean raw sewage in the Ottawa River, but because for once three levels of government collaborated to fund and manage a much-needed project that was completed without undue fuss. And then big-time politicians showed up at the opening ceremony, like they were proud of it or something.

This is amazing, and almost unprecedented. I know this because studying sewers is kind of my specialty.

In the late 1990s I got hired to look into the 1994 Canada Infrastructure Works Program (CIWP). Some of you will recall the 1993 federal election during which Liberal leader Jean Chrétien promised to cancel his predecessor’s Sea King helicopter replacement contract, dismissing it as a Cadillac, and get together with provinces and municipalities to invest $6 billion to fix crumbling infrastructure and create jobs.

Back in the 1990s, when I was trying to find out how infrastructure money was being spent and who was responsible for decisions, I never got a straight answer from anyone about anything. You’d call the feds and they’d send you to the province who, in turn, would say that’s a municipal issue, call city hall and no one there picked up the phone. It was such a circus that I ended up writing a book about it.

Back in those days, politicians took money meant to fix old crumbling sewers and bridges and spent it on shiny new suburban recreation centres instead because, in the memorable words of a long-time political operative, “nobody wants to go to the opening of a sewer.” In 2020, I am delighted to report, politicians practically trip over themselves to be photographed next to one. We not only had Mayor Jim Watson attend the opening of our new installation, but Ministers Catherine McKenna (federal) and Lisa MacLeod (provincial) as well.

I wouldn’t want to be unduly rosy. I’m sure if we looked closer into how this particular piece of equipment got built, we’d find things that don’t smell good — beyond the obvious, I mean. With a project this size, a few hiccups are inevitable. But we can take comfort knowing we won’t pollute our beloved namesake river as much and — better yet — that when it matters, politicians at all levels can show up, camera-ready, to boast about a sewage tank.

Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa writer.

In the end, the program lasted eight years and cost $8.3 billion. But did it fix infrastructure that badly needed repairing? That question is much more complicated than it has any right to be.

Much of the money got spent building shiny new things — recreation centres, tennis parks, the Saddledome in Calgary — instead of replacing 100-year-old sewer lines made of brick that were still in operation in cities like Montreal. Or adding basic infrastructure where it was missing, for instance in Halifax and Victoria, where raw sewage was simply being dumped in the water.

Ottawa, until just now, had problems with that. As the city explained in a Nov. 20 announcement, we started fixing things in 2016. “Now in operation, the Combined Sewage Storage Tunnel will significantly reduce the frequency of combined sewage overflows to the Ottawa River, bringing the City into compliance with Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks guidelines. It will reduce the volume of combined sewage overflows to the Ottawa River by up to 43,000 m3 per event – or approximately 18 Olympic-sized swimming pools – while also reducing the risk of basement flooding for approximately 7,000 residential properties in the north end of the Glebe and in Centretown.”

As you might imagine, this project was not cheap. It cost $232 million split between three levels of government ($62 million each for the province and the feds, $108 million for the city). But it worked. For those who’d like to read the chapter-and-verse edition, I highly recommend Andrew Duffy’s The Good Sewer story from July.

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