Something Missing from the Ottawa River Action Plan?

The Ottawa River Action Plan is a collection of projects being undertaken by the City of Ottawa and expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The biggest portion of the cost will be installing enormous holding tanks under the city, so that sudden downpours don’t flood into sanitary sewers and wash raw sewage into the river (as keeps happening now).

Lots of smart people are thinking about how to get this right, but there’s one big problem. Climate change means that calculations of how big a big rainstorm might be are all wet. This means it’s almost impossible to plan how big the holding tanks should be; too small and we spend all that money and still flush sewage into the river, too big and we spend more money than we needed to (and we don’t even have the money – see below).

So you’d think that the city might see this as a reason to take climate change seriously.

Here’s the scoop.

The holding tanks planned for under downtown are referred to as the “combined sewer overflow tunnel” and add up to six kilometers in length.

The Ottawa Citizen reports that 2007 calculations assumed once-in-a-century storms could dump 88mm of rain in a day based on historical data. With climate change this figure has been revised upward to 107mm in a day. The article points out that in fact, in 2009 in Kanata a big storm actually dumped 122mm.

In September 2011 city staff updated Environment Committee on the status of the Ottawa River Action Plan. Here’s Dixon Weir (General Manager of the Environmental Services Department) telling Committee the design would achieve the “level of service” approved by Council which is “zero overflows in an average year.”

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Looking back to February of 2010 we find that it was actually zero overflows during the swimming season and that the “average year” of record had been designated as 1980. The footnotes of the Committee minutes tell us:

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment has accepted 1980 as having “average year” wet weather patterns for engineering design purposes. Overflows will continue to occur in years with more severe wet weather than what occurred in 1980. For example, in recent years, a system designed to the proposed service level would have experienced on average one (1) overflow per year. The existing system averages over thirty (30) overflows/year.

So, what they’re saying there is that even with the proposed solution we’ll still have spills most years without even taking into account the fact that in future years precipitation extremes are expected to get even worse.

Again; doesn’t this seem reasonable grounds for an increased emphasis on our own local contributions to climate change?

About that money: The project is estimated at $237 million. Even before this big downtown holding tank project is factored in, the City of Ottawa website informs us that we’ve already spent $750 million on preventing spills from “combined sewer overflows.” The money needed for the upcoming work was thought to be coming from three sources: the City of Ottawa, the Province of Ontario and the federal government. But hey-hey, here’s John Baird telling us the feds don’t have the money right now. Yet here he is just over a year ago saying fixing the problem is a “morality issue.” In the meantime his colleagues, Environment Minister Peter Kent downplays climate change at the federal level by pulling out of Kyoto and Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver labels those concerned with the environment as radicals “who don’t take into account the facts but are driven by an ideological imperative.”

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