Water infrastructure management could cost Montreal billions

Montreal is one of the worst cities in the country for wasting drinking water

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Aging infrastructure, climate change and population growth are putting significant pressure on Montreal’s water resources. Faced with the magnitude of the issues and planned investments, the city is launching a public consultation on the future of water in its territory.

Montreal is wasting too much drinking water, it is dumping too many pollutants into the St. Lawrence River, its aging infrastructure is unable to swallow the ever-increasing quantity of water spilled during torrential rains, and the city does not have enough money to update and adapt its infrastructure related to water management.

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These are some of the findings raised in a report prepared by the Commission sur l’eau, l’environnement, le développement durable et les grands parcs.

Waste of drinking water

Canada is among the countries that waste their drinking water the most, and the city of Montreal is one of the worst cities in the country for this, according to the commission’s report.

Water consumption for residential purposes by the Montreal population is 367 litres per person per day, according to 2020 data, versus 220 litres on average in Canada.

“In Paris, it’s 120 litres per day and in London, it’s 140 litres,” explained Maja Vodanovic, responsible for consultation with the boroughs and water on the executive committee of the city of Montreal.

Water leaks in the distribution network are partly responsible for this poor balance sheet. The municipal administration estimates that a quarter of the water wasted comes from leaks.

“There are leaks in the public network, but there are also a lot of leaks in homes,” Vodanovic told The Canadian Press, adding that “there are still a lot of businesses that air-condition with potable water.”

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She invited the population to participate in large numbers in the public consultation, to find solutions to these problems.

Resource protection

Industrial discharges into the river and the island’s water bodies are constantly evolving, according to the commission, and only 38 per cent of the waterways have “satisfactory quality.”

“We now know that the St. Lawrence River is one of the most polluted rivers in terms of microplastics. It is in the same categories as the very polluted rivers of Asia,” Vodanovic said, referring in particular to per- and polyfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS), which are found in many consumer products and which can cause health issues.

She said it is necessary to act at the source, to reduce this type of pollutants found in the water, in particular when washing clothes in washing machines that do not contain the appropriate filter.

Cross connections of buildings, where sanitary and storm sewers are incorrectly linked, are also a major source of pollution. When flooding occurs in areas where buildings have crossed connections, sanitary wastewater flows into the Rivière des Prairies and St. Lawrence River without treatment.

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Adapting to climate change

Montreal has received 20,000 reports of flooded residences since 2013 and “this number will increase,” Vodanovic said.

“Even if we redid all the sewers, at a cost between $7 billion and $8 billion, there would still be flooding.”

She pointed out that adapting to climate change also involves “modifying the built environment of some houses, by putting walls, valves, drains.” It is necessary “to make concrete basins” and “to change the geometry of certain streets so that the water is routed to vacant lots.”

Major climate change adaptation projects also involve green infrastructure. More vegetation is needed to absorb rainwater, to prevent it from overloading the aging infrastructure of the city’s underground network.

This includes the use of green roofs, rain gardens, water retention ponds and permeable surfaces to capture and store water.

“According to projections for 2050, critical rainfall intensities will increase by an average of 15 per cent compared to today and the frequency of floods is likely to double,” the commission’s report said.

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Vodanovic, who is also Lachine’s borough mayor, estimated that $1 billion per year is needed to finance water management.

“This is one of the reasons why all the cities are asking the government of Quebec to set up a green pact of $2 billion per year for the next five years.”

The public consultation on water management will take place until Oct. 4, and the recommendations will be presented and adopted at a public meeting on Dec. 5. A public information session is scheduled Aug. 24 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Édifice Lucien-Saulnier, 155 Notre-Dame St. E., which will also be webcast.

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