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Winnipeg infrastructure review needed to prevent massive sewage spills, says Treaty One

Indigenous leaders are alarmed by a massive spill that has sent hundreds of millions of litres of raw sewage into the Red River in Winnipeg and wonder what the spill could mean for the health and safety of First Nations communities downstream.

“We are very concerned by the inadequate protection of our lands and resources, which fails to uphold the Treaty relationship envisioned by our Ancestors,” Treaty One Chairperson and Brokenhead Ojibway Nation Chief Gordon Bluesky said in a media release.

“The severity of this spill, surpassing any in the last decade, demands immediate action to mitigate the current damage, but also a comprehensive review and overhaul of existing infrastructure and maintenance protocols to prevent such incidents in the future.”

Work continued Wednesday near the Fort Garry Bridge in south Winnipeg to stop raw sewage from flowing into the Red River. The issue began in November of 2023 when the city discovered that one of two pipes that cross the Red River at Abinojii Mikanah (formerly Bishop Grandin Boulevard) had a leak. The second pipe, according to the city was found to be in poor condition, but the city determined it could still handle sewage flow across the river.

Last week however, as city workers worked to build a bypass system, the second pipe also failed and began spewing untreated sewage into the Red River.

According to the city, as of Tuesday afternoon, more than 220 million litres of sewage has spilled into the river and they said they are now “accelerating efforts” to build a usable bypass for the sewage.

But while the spill might be of concern to Winnipeggers, Bluesky said it could amount to an “environmental crisis” that will be felt well beyond the city limits, as water from the Red River flows into Lake Winnipeg and other bodies of water near several Treaty One First Nations in Manitoba.

“Our First Nations rely on our waters for sustenance, yet our lands and waters are increasingly encroached upon, hindering our ability to practice traditional livelihoods,” Bluesky said.

“Leadership of the Treaty One Nations emphasize that the health of rivers and lands is intrinsically linked to the well-being of all living beings, and hope to work with government and all affected communities to protect and preserve our shared environment for current and future generations.”

The city said Tuesday they expected the bypass to be fully functional this week, and once complete, sewage would stop leaking into the river.

But Bluesky says efforts to fix the leak do not go far enough, and that the city of Winnipeg needs to take a larger look at the state of its “aging” wastewater infrastructure, and create more “long-term” strategies to prevent further sewage spills.

The city said the two pipes that failed were installed in 1970 to direct sewage to the South End Sewage Treatment Plant.

“This failure of infrastructure highlights a major failure in the city’s waste management system and a systemic oversight caused by a lack of urgency in addressing critical infrastructural needs,” Bluesky said.

“Treaty One Nations stress the need for a proactive, rather than a reactive response by the city of Winnipeg.”

In an email, a city of Winnipeg spokesperson said the city is aware of concerns raised by First Nations leaders regarding the leaking sewage and how it could affect First Nations communities located downstream from the Red River, and said they are working to communicate as best as possible progress as the issue gets fixed.

“We are aware of the concerns about the impact of this event and the health of our waterways,” the city said. “We report events like this to both our federal and provincial regulators and the public in order to keep everyone informed. We have been regularly posting about this event on our website since it began. These posts will continue until the event has ended.”

The city also said they will continue to work with stakeholders including the Lake Winnipeg Foundation and Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective as they look for strategies to upgrade sewage infrastructure and protect rivers and lakes in Manitoba.

— 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