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Raw sewage spill stops, bypass system in full effect

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A massive sewage leak in south Winnipeg has finally been stopped after the city got a temporary bypass up and running – but experts say the damage has already been done.

As of Friday, the city confirmed the bypass system pumping sewage across the Red River at the Fort Garry Bridge was fully operational, meaning residents in southwest Winnipeg no longer need to reduce their water usage.

It all started when two aging sewer pipes, both built in the 70s, failed – spewing millions of litres of untreated sewage into the Red River.

It took the city more than two weeks to set up the temporary bypass system to stop the leak, but not before 228.4 million litres of raw sewage spilled into the river and ultimately into Lake Winnipeg.

"The damage is done. No one's going out there trying to pull the sewage out of the river," said Alexis Kanu, the executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.

She said raw sewage in the river will lead to algal blooms. Because the Red River runs into Lake Winnipeg and its tributaries – swimmers, fishers and the health of all living things in it are affected.

"That's a significant contribution of phosphorus to the river that's ultimately ending up in Lake Winnipeg and feeding those algal blooms."

The province said the Environment and Climate Change department is continuing to sample upstream and downstream of the sewage spill. It said untreated sewage typically includes higher concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen.

Karen Scott, the director of programs with the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium, said only time will tell the extent of the damage caused by this leak. Much of it will also depend on the weather.

If the summer is hot and calm, she said the lake will respond accordingly and we'll see large algal blooms. If it is cold and blustery, those blooms won't have a chance to take hold.

City councillor wants city to pay for damage it's caused

One city councillor said he believes the city should have to pay for the damage it's caused to the river and the lake.

"We know what the city has done. The city must now be held accountable," said Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt.

He has put forward a motion at city hall, calling on the province to fine the city $4 for every litre spilled – adding up to more than $900 million.

"There has to be penalties on the City of Winnipeg that are severe, that acts as a deterrent to future spills. Because right now, the City of Winnipeg is not taking this seriously."

Wyatt's motion has faced criticism from Mayor Scott Gillingham, who said it was irresponsible.

In a statement to CTV News, the province said the environmental compliance and enforcement branch has launched an investigation.

Gillingham said he has ongoing conversations with Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew about the spill.

"He and I share the same thought, that nobody wants to see this happen," Gillingham said. "Our staff don't want to see it happen, Winnipeggers don't want to see it happen, the communities living downstream – nobody wants to see this happen."

First Nation communities left to deal with fallout of sewage spills: advocate

Leaking sewage from the City of Winnipeg is a problem that has been impacting communities around Lake Winnipeg for years now.

"When a city treats a river as part of their sewage system, essentially to take away the contaminants and those things, well right off the bat it leads to fish kills, leads to changes in the ecosystem and things that we depend on," said Daniel Gladu Kanu, with the Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective.

"There are multiple times a year I am reminded from fishers and people from the community just how they've come to distrust the lake in a way that we never did before."

The collective was started by 14 First Nations groups that surround the lake. Kanu said the leaders of these First Nations feel frustrated and ignored by the city.

"Frustration both that the city and the province and the federal government haven't really reached out to them, to talk with them about it. Frustration that it's been allowed to happen year after year."

'Culture of apathy': City needs to address aging sewer infrastructure, foundation says

Kanu said while this is a large spill of sewage, other spills of untreated and undertreated wastewater happen frequently.

"We don't need to wait for a crisis like this to be horrified by what we're putting into the rivers. It's happening every single day," she said.

She pointed to the North End Sewage Treatment Plant – Winnipeg's largest and oldest plant which processes 70 per cent of the city's wastewater. She said the plant releases wastewater that exceeds the provincial licencing requirement for phosphorus limits.

"It's become a culture of apathy and a culture of just accepting lack of progress," She said. "This is both at the city level and at the provincial level. It is really embarrassing."

Mayor Scott Gillingham said the city is working to upgrade and expand its wastewater system, including the North End Sewage Treatment Plant.

The work will cost around $2 billion and the city says it needs more cash from both Ottawa and the province to get it done.

A provincial spokesperson said the province has provided financial support for the project in the past, and 'remains committed to advancing' the project going forward. 

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