Aging Sewer Systems Threatening Great Lakes, According To Report

Although many communities in the Great Lakes basin have made efforts to upgrade their wastewater plants, waters surrounding urban areas throughout the Great Lakes are still commonly unsafe for recreational use, and many parts of the freshwater ecosystem are in peril.

These are the findings of the Great Lakes Sewage Report Card, released on Nov. 29 by Canadian environmental group Sierra Legal Defense Fund. The report analyzes municipal sewage treatment and sewage discharges of 20 Canadian and American cities, which are graded on issues such as collection, treatment and disposal of sewage, based on information provided by each municipality.

According to the report, many cities in the region have antiquated systems for collecting and treating sewage and regularly release untreated sewage into local waterways. It is estimated that the 20 cities evaluated, representing a third of the region's 35 million people, dump more than 90 billion litres of untreated sewage into the Great Lakes each year (For a definition of litre and conversion information, go to

The results are disappointing, the group stated, with cities like Toronto (Ontario, Canada), Syracuse (New York) and Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) getting below average grades. Detroit, Cleveland and Windsor (Ontario, Canada) are at the bottom of the class. The cities that fared poorly typically have serious problems related to their combined sewers, antiquated systems that combine stormwater and sanitary sewers into a single pipe and are prone to releasing raw sewage during wet weather, the group stated.

Green Bay (Wisconsin), Peel Region (Ontario, Canada) and Duluth (Minnesota) are at the top of the class. All three generally have more sophisticated treatment processes and permit very little sewage to escape into the environment through combined-sewer overflows, spills or bypasses.

In addition to grading the cities, the report provides an analysis of the region's patchwork of sewage-treatment laws and policies, and the group offers several recommendations to ensure the protection of water quality in the Great Lakes.

"Although it would be easy to point the finger at municipalities, the Great Lakes basin is a political quagmire that includes two countries, eight states, a province and hundreds of local municipal and regional governments," said report author Dr. Elaine MacDonald. "The only way out of this mess is to have all levels of government make a renewed commitment to upgrade our aging sewage systems and conserve our precious freshwater resources."

The report can be accessed in PDF format at

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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