Toronto’s crown jewels — the inner harbour where kayakers paddle and boats sail in summer, and the ravine system that underpins the city — are both in need of urgent care, according to two new environmental reports.
“I would characterize it as fragile,” said Krystyn Tully, vice-president of Swim Drink Fish Canada, of the inner harbour, the area between the city shoreline and the Toronto Islands.
The inner harbour is vulnerable to sewage contamination, especially during and after rainstorms and this summer was particularly bad, Tully said.
The organization’s monitoring program documented a consistent pattern of extremely high levels of E. coli — an indicator of sewage — in the water this summer, on several occasions exceeding the city standard by 241 times.
There are nine sewer outfalls in the inner harbour and over the entire summer, the nine sites failed recreational water quality limits 44 per cent of the time.
The problem was particularly acute after the storm Aug. 7 that caused widespread flooding along Queens Quay and Lakeshore Blvd.
After the storm, the organization counted 32 dead rats, 31 dead fish, five pigeons, two raccoons, two cormorants and an opossum in the lake.
While the city is working on a long-term master plan to improve the situation, the inner harbour is often so polluted it could make people who swim in it or fall into it while boating or kayaking sick with gastrointestinal issues, Tully said.
Tully said these problems can takes several days to manifest, so people wouldn’t necessarily make the connection between the water and their illness. Washing thoroughly with soap and water after coming into contact with the water in the inner harbour would prevent illness, Tully said.
Tully said the city needs to do more to monitor water quality in the inner harbour and make people more aware of the problem.
A spokesperson for Toronto Water said the city is committed to protecting and restoring Lake Ontario and is engaged in a 25-year, $2-billion infrastructure program that will combat the sewage problem.
“To start monitoring these outfalls with consistency and accuracy would be an expensive and timely task — and may not provide information beyond what is already understood: there is a very strong correlation between heavy rainfall and combined sewers overflowing,” according to spokesperson Ellen Leesti.
The report on the inner harbour comes on the heels of a study of the city’s ravines, released last week, that found that over the past 40 years the biodiversity and ecological health of Toronto’s ravines has declined to a critical level and is now likely on the edge of ecological collapse.
“If we do not immediately get serious, align all our efforts with supportive city policy, then the ravines will decline beyond recovery,” according to the report by the University of Toronto, Faculty of Forestry.
The report points out that Toronto has been built over, through and around a massive ravine ecosystem that still covers 17 per cent of the city — more than 11,000 hectares of land.
The report found that invasive plants now dominate large expanses of the ravine, from the forest floor to the top of the trees.
Along with other non-native trees, the highly invasive Norway maple, originally planted as a street tree, has increased its canopy cover from about 10 per cent in the 1970s to 40 per cent in 2017. Norway maples grow quickly and produce dense shade that does not promote undergrowth.
The survey found that 50 per cent of ground-cover plant species in were non-native. Invasive Japanese knotweed, and dog-strangling vine — are now present in over 95 per cent of the forest floor surveyed, while the province’s official flower, the Trillium, is hard to find.
The report concluded that ravine policies need more explicit language and stronger enforcement.
“If we move as fast as we can, there’s a probability that it’s too late in some areas,” said Eric Davies, a University of Toronto forest ecology PhD student and one of the researchers.
Jane Arbour, a spokesperson in the city’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation division, said that city staff, together with the Toronto And Region Conservation Authority, are reviewing the findings of the report.
“The city is committed to protecting, maintaining and improving the ecological health and resilience of these natural spaces, and continues to make investments to manage the multiple pressures facing ravines.”
Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF