Are Torontonians who clear catch basins heroes, or ruining it for the rest of us?

Are Torontonians who clear catch basins heroes, or ruining it for the rest of us?

A community Facebook group, the salon of modern times, the middle of winter: talk of salt shortages, salt gouging, and salt sightings. (Walmart had a shipment, people. $3.97 a bag.) Discussion about snow shovelling is spirited. So is the catch-basin talk.

Catch basins are the iron grates beside the curb that divert the melt and rain back into the lake or wastewater treatment centre, depending on where you live. In the group, one man noted that most of the catch basins on his street were covered by snow, at risk of flooding.

Julie Malichen-Snyder stands over a catch basin in her East York neighbourhood (one that her neighbour also clears). Malichen-Snyder makes a point of clearing the basin in front of her own home to allow the water to drain and avoid flooding.
Julie Malichen-Snyder stands over a catch basin in her East York neighbourhood (one that her neighbour also clears). Malichen-Snyder makes a point of clearing the basin in front of her own home to allow the water to drain and avoid flooding.  (Rick Madonik / Toronto Star)

“The catch basin in front of my house is clear and flowing,” Julie Malichen-Snyder replied. “I consider it my responsibility to keep it open. It works to my and my neighbours’ benefit.”

Somebody asked why she did that. She pays taxes, after all.

“I think we have to be realistic about how far those tax dollars can spread,” replied Malichen-Snyder, who lives in East York. “Keeping the catch basin open is a simple thing. It leaves the city’s resources open for other needs.”

But what was the point of having a government, one person said, if citizens did all the work “with no understanding or training.”

“Training. Use a shovel to clear snow away from catch basin and to make a tunnel so melting water can drain away,” Malichen-Snyder wrote back. “Understanding. If melting water has some place to flow it will not puddle … Also the snow piles reduce and don’t refreeze into treacherous messes.”

Reached at home, she laughs. “I probably shouldn’t have been so rude, but I understand — if it’s clear, the water flows,” she says.

The city has 120,000 catch basins. Throughout the last century, the townships and communities that make up modern Toronto installed the curbside iron grates to ease flooding concerns, and government and ratepayers fought over who would pay. That was the typical reason they made the news, except for that time in 1966 when city workers found $18,150 of stolen money in the muck of a west-end culvert. It had been ditched by thieves who realized the money was traceable.

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Walk like a penguin to avoid winter wipeouts

In pop culture, the catch basin has long been overshadowed by the manhole, the favoured sewer portal for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Although their enemies, a group of ninjas called the “foot clan,” liked to slide into the sewer through an inlet-style catch basin in the 1990 live action movie.) In civic life, they’re typically underfoot and out of mind, but people tend to notice when they’re covered up, creating lakes and icy patches.

Toronto Star columnist Shawn Micallef is a DIY catch-basin evangelist. “I don’t want to be called a hero, but I just unblocked a sewer grate that was covered with leaves,” he tweeted in November. “The rushing gutter river that followed was very satisfying!!”

“Everybody who clears a catch basin today gets the Order of Canada,” he tweeted again this winter. “Still a little frozen down there. Gotta chop at it.”

A city spokesperson offered the official Toronto view. “Generally, we do ask residents to help out by trying to clear catchbasins around their property only if it is safe to do so (considering conditions, traffic etc.),” he said in an email. “That said, residents can file a service request with 311 for catchbasins that may be clogged with debris or are faulty.” In January, there were about 420 calls for overflowing and damaged grates with at least 100 calls on Jan. 23, a melty day that followed a very frigid Tuesday.

With another melt looming in late February, a photo of Councillor Brad Bradford hacking at the ice of a catch basin (“Feeling motivated”) is posted to the same east-end Facebook group.

“It’s been a tough winter — I appreciate your patience — and know the City needs to do better … If you’re able to help out your neighbours and clear the storm drains, it will make a big difference in improving drainage,” he writes. The debate resumes about the level of service under different mayors, what citizens can expect from property taxes, whether this photo of a city councillor with a spade is just a “dog and pony show,” if there is a generational divide.

Anecdotal evidence suggests Torontonians have a historic tendency to leave the work to somebody else. In February 1939, in the midst of an icy thaw, there was a lake on Queen St. E. “No one did anything about it until a policeman happened along, borrowed a shovel from a nearby store and dug a channel through solid ice to the nearby catchbasin,” the Star reported.

“All in a day’s work,” the officer said, hacking at the ice.

In the east end, Julie Malichen-Snyder has to shovel anyway, so she makes sure she doesn’t dump the snow on the catch basin. “It really isn’t hard,” she says.

“My kids all went to wonderful elementary schools and high schools, and it’s all because we pay taxes. You know, I don’t pay much for all of that,” she says. “I don’t see the problem of saving the city the effort of cleaning my catch basin so they can spend more time and effort on something else.” She has noticed that accessible transit stops for Wheel-Trans haven’t always been cleared this winter, even days after a snowfall. She would rather the city concentrate their resources there.

She knows that people will say that as a taxpayer, she shouldn’t have to do it herself. But in an ideal world, she wouldn’t have to tell her children to put their dishes in the dishwasher either.

“What do I do, leave them on the counter for the next 18 years?”

Sonja Stefanovic, who lives in southwest Scarborough, says she has been especially vigilant ever since her home was one of many that flooded with sewage during the heavy rains of August 2012. Her family lives on a corner property, so there are two catch basins, and every morning, she and her husband wear their bright orange visibility hats as they clear the sidewalks and basins. Neighbours drive by and give them the thumbs-up.

“We’re not always as joyful as I am right now talking about it,” she says, “but we try to be good-humoured and have a healthy attitude and do our bit.”

She says in her 16 years at the house, this winter has been “the worst” for any assistance from the city.

“We pay a lot in property tax, and our assumption is that part of that is to take care of those things,” she says. “But I live in the real world.”

When the plow finally does come through, it usually pushes a few feet of snow on top of the catch basins, and back they go. She knows that not everybody can physically do the work, especially when it’s icy. “It’s a grind, and each year it gets harder because each year I get older.”

For Stefanovic, the sound of the water draining has become the satisfying sound of victory.

“You start thinking, ‘My God, what has my life come to?” she asks. “I used to be involved in major IT programs for a very large global IT firm downtown on Bay St., and now I’ve resorted to being thrilled that I’ve beat the catch basin.”

Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs

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