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Coquitlam creek contamination spells warning for Metro Vancouver sewers

Documents reveal bubbling sewage has surfaced from a sanitary sewer on the Coquitlam-Burnaby border over a dozen times, raising questions over both the long-term survival of salmon in a nearby stream and how Metro Vancouver will manage aging infrastructure in the face of more powerful storms

Straddling the border of Coquitlam and Burnaby, Stoney Creek is the largest tributary of the Brunette watershed and one of the most important spawning grounds for Coho and Chum salmon in Vancouver. 

Bubbling up from groundwater on the southeast slope of Burnaby Mountain, the upper reaches of the creek flow through a dense neighbourhood on the Burnaby-Coquitlam border, eventually flowing into the Brunette River. Along the way, it supports over 60 species of birds, a variety of mammals and countless insect and plants. 

It’s a vital creek in the Fraser River watershed, but in the last several years documents obtained from Freedom of Information requests to the city of Coquitlam and Metro Vancouver reveal bubbling sewage has surfaced from a nearby trunk line over a dozen times, littering roadways with toilet paper and human waste and raising questions over the long-term survival of spawning salmon in the Brunette River tributary.

“Stoney Creek has got more salmon going up it than all the rest of them combined,” said John Templeton, head of the Stoney Creek Environment Committee. “I’m seriously concerned if we’ll continue to be able to have salmon.” 

As densification plans in neighbourhoods such as Burquitlam and Lougheed Town Centre look to bring tens of thousands people upslope of Stoney Creek, streamkeepers like Templeton worry the gains his group has made in rejuvenating salmon habitat will start to backslide.

The pollution flowing into Metro Vancouver’s urban creeks ranges from oily spills traced back to illegal dumping at construction sites to heavy metals from car brake linings and toxic particles from tires washed into waterways in the fall — something known as the “first flush effect.”

“I’ve seen bright silver Coho that should have spawned but they died because of the toxins,” said Templeton. “If we get to the point where we turn it into a total concrete jungle, these fish won’t be able to handle it.” 

But one of the nastiest threats to salmon, says Templeton, are sewage overflows.

After Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff spotted evidence of algae growth in Stoney Creek, they requested Metro Vancouver’s Liquid Waste Services department step in to test the waters, according to the department’s head, Rick Gallilee. Some of the numbers that came back were startling. 

Field notes obtained through a Freedom of Information request show a Metro Vancouver testing team found E. coli levels reaching 8,664 MPN (Most Probable Number of viable cells in a 100-millilitre sample).

That’s significantly higher than the Canadian Recreational Water Quality Guidelines, which recommend shutting down swimming areas like Buntzen Lake or White Pine Beach when levels exceed 200 E. coli bacteria per 100 millilitres.

“Sanitary spill? Cross connection?” wrote the testers next to their results. 

But while Gallilee said “E. coli is basically fecal matter,” it could be anything, from humans to birds and dogs.

“We don’t know the source of that,” he said. 

METRO LOOKS TO LONG-TERM UPGRADE

The overflows near Stoney Creek have prompted Metro Vancouver to include expanding the nearby Stoney Creek trunk sewer system as part of its proposed 2022-2026 Capital Plan, with modelling currently underway to identify bottlenecks. 

But it’s not just a Coquitlam or Burnaby problem — such overflows plague weak spots across the Metro system. In 2017, over 39 million cubic metres of untreated sewage entered regional water bodies in Metro Vancouver. Much of the overflow occurs in the aging municipal pipes of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster, where combined sewers mix sanitary wastewater from toilets and drains with stormwater. 

In response, B.C.’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change required Metro Vancouver to roll out a real-time sewer overflow map, which went live at the end of 2020.

When a major storm hits, the map lights up as stormwater seeps into and overflows sanitary sewers at various points across Metro Vancouver’s 21 municipalities. 

In old sewer networks like Vancouver, Metro Vancouver is spending billions of dollars to separate sanitary and stormwater connections in a system that for years funnelled toilet and stormwater into one system of pipes.

But just because sanitary and stormwater sewers have been built separately in municipalities like Coquitlam, doesn’t mean they can’t get overwhelmed as intense rainfall events combine with faulty connections, fatty clogs and busted pipes.

Metro Vancouver projections predict climate change will lead to a modest increase in rainfall across the region by 2050, but most of that is expected to fall during extreme rainfall events, putting more pressure on the sewer system's weak spots. 

But Gallilee says prioritizing a place like Stoney Creek — where the community has rallied to protect the waterway — over other neighbourhoods raises some fundamental questions over equity. 

Namely, who gets timely sewer upgrades before heavy rainfall made worse by climate change triggers more overflows? 

“It’s occurring all over the place. It’s one of the largest challenges right now,” said Gallilee.

He added: “It very quickly becomes an expensive proposition.”

A PRIVATE PROPERTY PROBLEM

Underneath the streets of Metro Vancouver, a labyrinth of roughly 14,000 kilometres of pipelines guide much of the regions sewage and stormwater to treatment plants such as that found at Annacis Island in Richmond. 

“It’s pretty fundamental to the functioning of our cities. We all rely on it every time we turn on a tap, take a shower, use the bathroom,” said Lisa Dominato, Vancouver councillor and vice-chair of Metro’s Liquid Waste Committee. 

“We don’t necessarily understand the complexity of the system and how important it is from a public health standpoint.” 

Dominato says Metro Vancouver and its municipalities are in a race to ensure its sanitary sewer system can withstand both the impacts of climate change-driven rainfall and the pressures of a burgeoning population.  

“As we see with climate change, increasing rain, it can be a factor. We’ve seen it in Vancouver, we’ve seen it in Coquitlam,” she said.

Earlier this month, Metro planners predicted the region would add another million people to its population, pushing the total to 3.8 million by 2050. With every new person in the Metro area, the footprint on the sewer system goes up.

But not all problems stem from towers and clouds in the sky — an even more insidious challenge plays out underground in unexpected and often hard to reach places.

Metro Vancouver and municipal staff are engaged in a never-ending battle against tree roots, which fracture these vital conduits from all directions. From above, faulty manholes add to the overflow problem, letting stormwater into what’s supposed to be a closed system. 

To make things worse, generations of home renovations have led an untold number of private property owners to punch holes in the wrong sewer lines, often to hook up a drain from a gutter or foundation.

When a major storm hits, that rainfall and the rising groundwater seep into the cracked sanitary lines usually reserved for our toilets, sinks and greasy habits. The sewers become quickly overwhelmed, and with nowhere to go but up and out, send used toilet paper and feces into local neighbourhoods and waterways.

“If you look at the balance of piping in the entire system, the bulk of it is privately owned, and most of it is never monitored,” said Gallilee, adding that in the wettest months, Metro Vancouver is reporting a lot of stormwater entering the sanitary system, with the majority coming in from pipelines under private property.

How to access fractured and poorly installed pipes under private land is a major problem cities across North America are just starting to grapple with as infrastructure comes to the end of its lifespan. 

“It’s a problem that’s happening all over the place,” said Gallilee. “It’s one of the largest challenges right now.”

*This story is the first in the series Under your Feet: How fatbergs, busted pipes and climate change are threatening Metro Vancouver’s sewer system. Check back next week for Part 2.