There is concern among Indigenous leaders and communities after it was learned the City of Winnipeg recently dumped almost 60 million litres of raw sewage into the Red River after a weekend of heavy rainfall threatened to overwhelm the city’s sewage systems.
“In this day and age of environmental and health awareness, this practice should no longer be acceptable,” Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee said in a statement reacting to the news that the city’s wastewater department made the decision last weekend to divert wastewater into the Red River, and ended up dumping 59.6 million litres of sewage into the river.
The city said the move was made to prevent Winnipeg homeowners from having their sewers backed up, and to prevent wastewater from spilling out onto city streets after another weekend of heavy precipitation put extreme pressure on the city’s wastewater systems.
But Settee said, with many Manitoba First Nations communities located downstream from where the sewage was dumped, the move could be harmful to the health of both the people and the environment in those communities.
“The dumping of raw sewage into tributary waters brings into question impacts upon, not only the environment but also on the health of the people living downstream,” Settee said. “The environmental impacts of releasing raw sewage highlights issues of nutrient loading into an already impacted lake, with elements such as phosphorous and nitrogen.
“For human health, there is the danger of e-coli contamination, among other contaminants, on food production such as farms and cattle.”
Settee said anytime Winnipeg dumps sewage into the Red River, it concerns many MKO citizens, because of where they live, and where that sewage could end up.
“Winnipeg sits in the middle of the confluence of the Assiniboine River and Red River, the two major drainage rivers into Lake Winnipeg,” Settee said. “The MKO territory begins at the north basin of Lake Winnipeg, where several MKO First Nations are located.
“MKO First Nations are rightfully concerned about the effects of dumping raw sewage into two major tributary rivers into Lake Winnipeg, upstream of their territories in the north basin and the Nelson River.”
And despite the city stating they had no other choice but to divert the sewage, Settee said it should never be acceptable to dump sewer water into Manitoba’s waterways, and that there has to be a better way.
“There must be a technological alternative to this practice going forward, and there should also be an examination on the cumulative impacts of this practice over so many years upon both the environment and human health,” he said.
“Our citizens are sounding the alarm as the original environmental stewards of Mother Earth and its land and ecosystems. MKO citizens continue to rely on the waterways. We want to protect the water for the health of our children and our future generations.
“It is our Creator-given responsibility to care for Mother Earth, and our concerns must be taken seriously.”
The Winnipeg Sun reached out to the city asking for a response to Settee’s criticism, and in an email, a city spokesperson said the city's wastewater treatment operations work as “originally designed” and that the city is “urgently working on a number of infrastructure upgrades to better protect the environment, improve capacity, and reduce discharges."
“Discharges to the rivers are meant to protect the city’s sewer and drainage infrastructure if and when it is over capacity, and to protect Winnipeg homes and businesses from widespread basement flooding,” the spokesperson added.
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun