Winnipeg could run out of room for sewage

The province and city have come to an agreement over the timeline for upgrades to Winnipeg's North End sewage plant. File / Global News

Winnipeg’s existing sewage system could be overrun with fecal matter if the city’s population increases beyond 90,000 more people within five to nine years, a new administrative report attached to the water and waste committee’s agenda suggests.

The city is currently undergoing a massive project to upgrade the North End sewage plant — the proposed $1.8 billion plant upgrade is the largest capital undertaking in the city’s history, according to the administrative report, and is slated to be completed in 2028.

The water and waste department’s director said when the upgrades are complete, the problem will disappear.

But the existing facility’s capacity to process biosolids — poop and other solid waste — is finite, the report reads.

Read more: Winnipeg sewage plant receives $127M from provincial government for upgrades

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That finite capacity could halt or slow residential, commercial and industrial development within Winnipeg and metro area communities that use the city’s sewage system until the sewage plant upgrades are complete, according to the report.

The city’s public service now recommends that council be given the ultimate authority to approve any requests which would have a significant impact on Winnipeg’s sewage treatment capacity.

“We’ve had unprecedented residential growth in the city and there’s been some industrial growth in the city, the really key thing for us is to get going on this new biosolids facility and then the capacity limitations will disappear,” said Moira Geer, the water and waste department’s director.

“We’re asking council to be making critical decisions on future developments that could consume a fair amount of capacity as well as any service sharing with communities outside the city.”

In the report, city administration recommends city council move to rescind a 2012 decision that lets the chief administrative officer negotiate and approve water and sewer service sharing with surrounding municipalities — instead, the report recommends, any future agreements to share sewer and water service with surrounding municipalities be approved by city council.

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The report also recommends any industrial developments that would eat up more than five per cent of the remaining plant capacity be approved by council, while any changes to the existing sewage agreements with Rosser and West St. Paul that increase sewage treatment would have to be approved by council.

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Colleen Sklar, the executive director of the Winnipeg Metropolitan Region — a municipal association of 19 municipalities surrounding the province’s capital — said the report could have an impact on development in communities adjacent to Winnipeg.

“Sewer and water is one of the limits to growth and it’s really important that we address growth management and servicing of this region because this is where people want to live, where their jobs are and we have to get a really good plan going forward on this,” she said.

Sklar would like to see a regional water and sewer service plan developed between levels of government.

The president of the Manitoba Homebuilders’ Association, Lanny McInnes, said any limits on sewer capacity could negatively affect his industry — and economic development.

“A report that is saying we have about five years, 10 years of capacity left, is concerning especially when the potential solution is at least eight years away. It’s not just residential growth, it’s industrial,” McInnes said.

“Economic development could be stunted because of our servicing capacities.”

That three-phase sewage plant project is slated to finish in 2028 — full provincial and federal funding for the north end plant upgrades has not yet been confirmed, but in late August the province committed $126.6 million toward the project, on top of an already backed $56.2 million.

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“The needs of residential growth, economic development and service sharing will need to be balanced until a new facility is completed, currently estimated to be completed in eight years or 2028,” reads the water and waste report, which goes to the water, waste, riverbank management and environment committee Nov. 9.

Read more: Winnipeg, province agree to deal for North End sewage plant upgrades

The project, ordered by the province since 2003, is required to bring the sewage plant into environmental compliance and curb the flow of phosphorus and other contaminants from city sewers into Lake Winnipeg.

Excessive phosphorus in the lake’s waters is a contributing factor to algae blooms.

The city has moved ahead on the first of three phases — $408 million in power supply and headworks facilities upgrades, while the biosolids facility upgrade is the second phase.

It’s angling to get more federal and provincial dollars to fund the massive infrastructure project.

In mid-September, a report to city council’s executive policy committee recommended asking for a $321.24 million federal funding transfer from the public transit infrastructure stream of Ottawa’s Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program to the green infrastructure stream to help pay for the massive project.

That request came at the behest of the province, Mayor Brian Bowman told reporters at the time.

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“This would be a welcome prioritization of $589 million of provincial and federal funding toward city council’s number one infrastructure priority,” Bowman said in a mid-September statement. 

The funding transfer was approved Sept. 30.

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