R.C Harris Water Works in Toronto, Ontario. Photo credit/ Jennyrotten via Flickr
R.C Harris Water Works in Toronto, Ontario. Photo credit/ Jennyrotten via Flickr


In 2000, seven people died and 7 000 citizens fell ill in Walkerton, Ontario, after drinking tap water infected with e. coli. After inquiring into the issue, environmental activist Kristen Tully co-founded the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, whose mandate is that “nobody in our watershed should ever get sick from water again. It should be swimmable, drinkable, and fishable. You should be able to touch the water, swim in it, find fish, and get food from the water without being sick.”

Thirteen years later, Tully is still fighting for clean water in Ontario. Over the final weekend of October, she joined four environmentalists on a panel at UofT to discuss the negative impacts Torontonians are having on the Great Lakes.


Panelists argued that the main causes of the Great Lakes’ degradation is that Canadians devalue the importance of water and lack knowledge of our water systems.

Water is the most valuable physical resource on the planet and Canada holds 20 per cent of global freshwater in the Great Lakes. Pollution in the Great Lakes jeopardizes water ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health. Water is an entity that humans need to survive—a fact many take for granted. With mass engagement in the discourse of water protection, however, positive change will be fluid.

Torontonians have an extremely significant impact on the health of the water system; Toronto acts as an enormous watershed, which means that topographically the city declines into Lake Ontario. Therefore, melted rain and snow are carried into the lake through runoff and street drains—carrying with it the pollution of the city, such as oil puddles from cars, cigarette butts, plastic bags, and the like.


Tully posited that there are two main indicators dictating the health of water resources: energy usage and wastewater treatment—otherwise known as sewage treatment.

In Toronto, the sewage system is over one hundred years old, which to replace would cost the city over 300 million dollars. The problem with these older systems is that stormwater and sewage is combined in the same pipe. Therefore, heavy rain or snowmelt can overload these pipes, sending the sewage from these pipes spilling into the lake untreated.

During the Toronto flood of July 2013, more sewage spilled into Lake Ontario in one day than would ordinarily occur in an entire year. What’s more, floods of this calibre are set happen more frequently due to effects of climate change.


Human society is built on the consumption of energy—energy is, and will always be needed. Power plants, however—especially nuclear power generators—are incredibly harmful to water resources. In order to generate a power plant, excess amounts of water are needed, which affects fish and aquatic systems.

When energy waste is dumped into the lakes, it causes irreparable damage. Power plants discharge a combination of heavy metals and salts which accumulate in the water, negatively affecting water quality and aquatic life. Additionally, water ecosystems are harmed by the discharge of radioactive elements from nuclear power plants.

So what is the average Torontonian to do?


Panelist Lindsay Telfer stated: “We must make a connection with water; we need to know where our water is coming from and where it is going—we just aren’t educated on how polluted our waters are.”


The panelists stressed the idea that people must become aware of their environmental impact—and that making something personal is always a great motivator to enact change. Once this is achieved, discussion with our peers, family, and colleagues spreads the concern. Only when this discourse is initiated will meaningful action be produced.

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