The town is dealing with an all-too-common problem in Garrison Village: leaky sewage pipes.
The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority is reporting continually high levels of E. coli in Two Mile Creek.
This has been an ongoing problem since 2015, and since 2021, the town has spent about $1.3 million on infrastructure improvements to sewer lines there.
Meanwhile, the town is budgeting another $750,000 in next year’s budget for more repairs.
Rome D’Angelo, the town’s director of operations, couldn’t say what the total cost of repairs would be once all the work is complete.
But Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa says leaky sewage lines like those in Garrison Village are a symptom of a bigger issue towns all over Canada have with funding their infrastructure.
“The real crux of the whole matter is municipalities are required to fund larger portions of these infrastructure projects using property tax dollars. That’s not sustainable,” he said.
Over the past 25 years, funding from higher levels of government, including the province, has fallen, Zalepa noted.
As a result, towns are required to chip in larger amounts to help keep the roads, pipes, bridges and other assets intact – and they simply do not have “the financial bandwidth” to keep up, he said.
“This is not a one-year problem. This is not a five-year problem,” Zalepa said “This is a chronic 30-year underfunding of capital.”
“Municipal politicians find it too easy to borrow from the capital kitty to keep the tax rate down,” he added.
The only solution to the town’s infrastructure issues, whether they be leaky pipes in Garrison Village or cracked roads in Virgil, is to raise taxes, he said.
“Unless some other level of government steps back into the picture,” he added.
If the town wants to do anything to protect the environment, investing in sewer infrastructure makes a major difference, said Coun. Erwin Wiens, the deputy lord mayor.
“It’s not going to be cheap,” he said.
But he thinks the current council is ready to put “our money where our mouth is.”
Wiens said council has been putting more into its capital reserve to benefit future infrastructure projects like sewer repairs.
The previous council, on the other hand, was behind on infrastructure investments, he said.
“Now we have this big bill that’s coming,” he said. “We have to make a concerted effort so that the next generation isn’t paying for it.”
Gregary Ford, director of water programs for water advocacy organization Swim Drink Fish, said the is a common scenario across Ontario.
“Oftentimes, we do have aging infrastructure that results in leaks,” he added.
E. coli can cause some types of algae to grow more rapidly, which can deplete oxygen in the water and, causing fish to suffocate, Ford explained.
This bacteria, however, is also an “indicator that there are more pathogenic substances in the water.”
E. coli found in human feces, for example, might show high levels of pharmaceuticals, caffeine and sucralose, none of which are good for fish and wildlife, he said.
“It’s not something that we often think about, but it does have impacts,” he said.
Birth control medications, too, can enter the water supply through broken sewage lines, Ford said.
In people, E. coli can cause nausea, vomiting and fevers, though most symptoms pass in five to 10 days, Health Canada says on its website.
Some towns have combined sewers, which direct both storm water and toilet water to the same outflow, Ford said.
“Oftentimes, when we get excessive rains, those pipes can overflow,” he said. “Then, they deposit either partially or untreated wastewater directly into our receiving water bodies.”
Operations director D’Angelo said NOTL doesn’t have any combined sewers and that separate systems are generally cleaner.
However, he also said, the town discovered a few homes in Garrison Village that had their sanitary lines mistakenly connected to the town’s storm water pipes.
The misconnected lines have been fixed since the town first retained engineering company GM BluePlan to find the E. coli source in 2017.
Trees can cause issues for sewer lines as well, because their roots can puncture the concrete lines over time, forming cracks and holes that allow untreated water from sanitary lines to spill out.
D’Angelo said the town uses cameras to inspect the lines for these kinds of cracks and will cut back roots if they become problematic.
“Removal is considered a last resort and efforts are made to preserve trees whenever possible,” he added.
Cracks can also form because of shifting soil, corrosion or aging, he said.
This isn’t the first time the town has had to clean up broken sewer lines.
Zalepa pointed out the town had to deal with the same issue at Queen’s Royal Beach.
The public beach became the subject of much scrutiny from The Lake Report in 2019, when it learned of a two-year-long investigation of the E. coli levels at the beach.
In addition to finding high E. coli levels at the beach, the investigation – also led by GM BluePlan – found, “The outfall located at Two Mile Creek has been identified with similar E. coli characteristics as the Queen’s Royal Beach.”
By 2021, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority was reporting much lower levels of E. coli at the beach, thanks to a series of infrastructure fixes that cost the town almost $1 million.
“To give credit where it’s due, the municipality of Niagara-on-the-Lake has made some amazing strides,” Ford said.
The waters at Queen’s Royal Beach is tested three times a week from May to September as part of the Niagara River Remedial Action Plan.
And in March 2023, Environment and Climate Change Canada redesignated the water around Queen’s Royal Beach as “not impaired.”
Neither D’Angelo, Wiens nor Zalepa said they were aware of any other leaking sanitary lines in Niagara-on-the-Lake.