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Nov. 30, 2021 | Tuesday
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High E. coli levels and sewage leaks: NOTL sewers are contaminating lake, two-year town investigation shows
A sewer repair project on Dixie Avenue in Chautauqua is related to the town's sewer system problems, Lord Mayor Betty Disero says. Kevin MacLean photo

Old, damaged and deteriorating sewer pipes have been allowing untreated sewage to seep into the waters of Lake Ontario at Queen's Royal Beach for several years, a two-year investigation by the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has found.

Investigators hired by the town concluded the sewage and runoff is depositing dangerous E. coli bacteria from human and animal feces (from birds, racoons and horses) into the lake at the beach area near the gazebo and also the nearby Niagara River.

The worst culprits are broken, disused and inappropriately connected sewer pipes, which have led to an expensive and serious crisis at the crown jewel of NOTL’s waterfront, a popular Old Town destination for tourists and residents alike, according to a massive, 210-page report on the investigation.

It is unclear how many years the problem has existed, but one problem area, the sanitary sewer pipe at the Simcoe Park wading pool, was installed “many years ago,” Lord Mayor Betty Disero said in an interview Sunday.

Most of the issues are due to human fecal matter getting into the storm sewer system, but DNA testing found that some animal feces also contributed to the unsafe levels of E. coli.

The previously secret report, prepared by Hamilton firm GM BluePlan Engineering Group, was commissioned by town councillors in 2017. The document was included in the agenda for the May 6 committee of the whole meeting and posted online.

The report urges the town to act on its recommendations and councillors agreed to do so last week.

The document warns, “If the town is not actively working toward a solution it is certain that the (Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks) will order the town to close the Queen’s Royal Beach and remove the beach designation.”

The town is taking the problem seriously, Disero said. Sections of “the sanitary system are leaking into the storm sewers, which dump (the contaminants) into the lake.”

“Some of the repairs that are being done will be very quick and have a very large impact” on the problems, she said.

Overall, however, “This is not going to be a quick and easy solution. We are an old community. This is something that took years to get to this point and it’s going to take some time. We are going to move as quickly as we can to resolve the issue, but it may take longer than just a few weeks to fix.”

Most strains of E. coli are not harmful, according to the Mayo Clinic, but some can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

The report says E. coli levels above 200 CFU/100ml (colony forming units per 100ml of water) lead to beach closings. Queen’s Royal Beach was “posted,” or ordered closed, six times last year due to high E. coli levels, the engineers said.

One chart included in the report shows E. coli samples with between 10 CFU and 2,000 CFU/100 ml in areas near the waterfront park.

The Queen's Royal Beach water will be tested bi-weekly this summer, the report says.

In all, 11 properties near King and Queen streets in Old Town, mainly private homes, but also an art gallery, a bed and breakfast, and one church, were found to have problems requiring urgent repairs.

However, the report also said it is likely there are more problems elsewhere in town and recommended that every manhole in Niagara-on-the-Lake be thoroughly inspected.

“This is not the only area of town that has E. coli levels exceeding (environment) ministry standards,” the report says. In particular, the sewer discharge “located at Two Mile Creek has been identified with similar E. coli characteristics as Queen’s Royal Beach,” the document says.

It also notes that E. coli in storm water is common. Hamilton Harbour, Toronto Harbour and Lake Erie State Park beach in New York state “have similar E. coli issues with storm sewer outlets.”

When the former council ordered the investigation after learning of the situation during a closed session on July 17, 2017, all anyone really knew was that unsafe and abnormally high E. coli readings were occurring off Queen’s Royal Beach.

The engineering firm conducted months of extensive testing, including using CCTV cameras in the sewer system, to pinpoint causes and suggest solutions.

While most of the problems involve deteriorated hookups between residents’ homes and the town-owned sanitary sewers, some of the contamination could be from improper installations, one official told The Lake Report. But many of the sewers involved were installed as far back as the 1970s, so the concern now is fixing things, not assigning blame.

In the case of the town-operated wading pool in Simcoe Park, the sanitary pipe from the pool was connected directly to the storm sewer – instead of the sanitary sewer – allowing contaminated water to head directly toward the lake. Repairs on that connection began this past week and will cost $30,000.

There were no problems with pipes from the washrooms at Simcoe Park, the report says.

NOTL already has a high water table and heavy rains and runoff can lead to very unhealthy E. coli counts at Queen’s Royal Beach, the report says. Problems are not as pronounced during warm, dry weather.

Effluent has also leaked into the ground and thus the ground water aquifer, en route to the storm sewer system and eventually the lake.

Disero said a major sewer replacement project is underway on Dixie Avenue in Chautauqua because leaks from that area contributed to the high E. coli results in Two Mile Creek, which meanders through the west side of Old Town.

The investigation from 2017 to now has cost the town $372,404, with planned repairs estimated to push that to $493,000. The report says the town has sufficient budget to cover those costs. Part of that total could be defrayed by government grants of up to $150,000.

Property owners are responsible for their own repairs, but could receive government grants of up to $1,500, the report says. There are no estimates for how much each affected resident’s repairs might cost.

However, with more investigations required the town’s price tag could increase. Properties on Queen Street, where the most abandoned old pipe connections are located, have not yet been examined by CCTV, the report notes. Parts of Garrison Village are also being checked.

The investigators from GM BluePlan have been quietly compiling and analyzing a long list of problems and recommended fixes.

The engineers categorized problems from low to high urgency regarding repairs. Most of the properties listed in the report are homes on King or Davy streets, with one property each on Queen, Platoff and Picton identified.

The previous town council launched the investigation in 2017 after elevated E. coli levels were flagged by the Niagara River Remedial Action Plan, a Welland-based organization dedicated to protecting the river’s ecosystem. However, little has been said publicly about the town’s sewer problems, until now.

Many residents whose hookups or pipes were identified as problems, and others’ whose were tested, were apprised of the investigation, however.

E. coli is a sensitive issue.

Under the heading “Communications,” the report says, “Access to E. coli data is limited as it is sensitive information due to public perception.”

“Due to the sensitivity of the investigation and findings, public awareness and education will be a key factor moving forward.”

“The key to public education is to allow residents to understand the town is doing (its) part to reduce the levels of cross-contamination between the sanitary and storm sewer systems, but in some cases private property sanitary issues are also a contributor to the elevated E. coli levels.”

Some relatively minor problems related to bird and animal feces were also found, according to the engineers.

Raccoon feces was found in some storm sewers after the animals were able to squeeze through large openings in some sewer grates. Those grates have been or are being replaced.

The report also says monitoring of horse carriage routes showed “horse feces droppings were evident on the road in multiple locations … This confirms that the horse collection bags do not collect all horse droppings. This adds significant E. coli to the storm sewer” when it rains.

Disero said her main concern is fixing the sewer problems related to human E. coli.

“I don’t know how you stop geese, I don’t know how you stop raccoons. So I don’t think the horse and carriage operators, the Sentineals, or whomever, should be worried at this point. They may want to review the methods they’re using for controlling” their horses’ droppings, Disero said.

“I’m not going to say, ‘We need to take them away.’ I’m not prepared to think about the extreme in that regard,” she said.

The full report can be found online here.