Toronto’s water main nightmare: how we got into this mess and what it will cost to get us out

Toronto’s water main nightmare: how we got into this mess and what it will cost to get us out

This winter in Toronto, as many as 70 water mains ruptured every week, causing blackouts, flooding basements to the rafters and creating the perfect recipe for SUV-size sinkholes. How we got into this mess and what it will cost to get us out

(Illustration: Josh Cochran)

Hillary Avenue is a short street spanning the distance between Keele and Rogers Road in a west Toronto neighbourhood populated with Portuguese bakeries, West Indian takeouts and Vietnamese noodle shops. Toward the west end of the street, facing a public school and an adjoining daycare centre, is the tidy, two-storey home belonging to Pedro Lezcano and his family. Lezcano, a 45-year-old native of Paraguay, is the night manager of the Loblaws across the street from Mel Lastman Square. When not taking care of their 15- and 11-year-old sons, Lezcano’s wife, Maria, works as a nanny.

On the night of Saturday, January 2, the Lezcanos spent a quiet evening at home. They ate dinner, watched some TV, and at 10:30 Lezcano went to bed. Sometime in the middle of the night, the water main running beneath Hillary Avenue broke right outside his house. For the next several hours, water flowed undetected from the break, slowly spreading across Lezcano’s backyard and the yards belonging to four of his neighbours. By the early morning, the pooled water was beginning to seep through their foundation walls. Around seven o’clock, a tenant living in the basement of one of the neighbouring houses was wakened by the sound of liquid sloshing against the side of her bed and frantically called 911.

About half an hour later, someone pounded on Lezcano’s front door. Lezcano awoke, threw on some clothes, and ran down the broadloomed steps. When he opened the door, he saw a firefighter dressed in complete regalia. Behind him, Hillary Avenue was entirely covered with water.

“Is your basement flooding?” asked the firefighter.

After responding that he didn’t know, Lezcano raced downstairs and saw that, yes, there were about three or four inches of water. Though city workers quickly arrived and turned off the valves on either side of the break, the damage was done. For the next two hours, Lezcano could do nothing but watch as the water—which, for the record, was swimming with insects—slowly filled his basement, finally stopping at a height of about five murky feet.

In the city of Toronto, there are roughly 1,400 water main breaks a year. The vast majority occur in the winter—up to 70 a week—when rapid fluctuations in the temperature cause the ground to heave and shift, putting pressure on our mains. On those days, the city’s water mains, all of which are either old or poorly built, start popping with devilish abandon, which causes entire streets to flood and buildings to lose power. It’s a problem the city will spend $127 million to fix this year, a figure that even the most cheery councillor will admit isn’t nearly enough.

This winter, in addition to the inundation suffered by the residents of Hillary Avenue, a broken service line caused an eight-hour power outage in Yorkville, and broken water mains sparked basement floodings on Albion Road and Hollyberry Trail. In early February, four apartment buildings at York Mills and Leslie were left without water for three days when, following a water main break, a contractor struck a shut-off valve controlling water to the area. All the water that should have gone to the apartment buildings filled the intersection instead, turning it into a small lake. Residents of the apartments then faced the degrading prospect of collecting their drinking and bathing water from a spigot located in the basement of a neighbouring apartment building. This afforded one water-hauling resident the opportunity to rail at assembled reporters, expressing a sense of outrage that, while certainly exaggerated, many Torontonians felt this winter.

“This is like living in Haiti!” he spat. “The Third World is here on York Mills!”

(Illustration: Josh Cochran)

There are two types of water mains in Toronto. Transmission mains shuttle water between the pumping stations and the reservoirs; they measure as big around as a wine barrel, if not bigger, and have a half-inch wall bolstered with both a cement mortar lining and a concrete encasement. Needless to say, they rarely break, but when they do the mess is volcanic—the last transmission water main fracture was in the late ’90s near Dupont and Dufferin, which flooded dozens of houses.

The others are called distribution mains, which carry water from the reservoirs to homes and businesses. Distribution mains are much smaller—about the diameter of a honeydew melon—and, as a consequence, break all the time. Circumferential breaks (in which the pipe snaps in two) and bell-flange breaks (in which the connector between pipes fractures) usually cause the water to fountain up onto the street, where it is carried away by the sewers. The longitudinal break, whereby the split occurs along the length of the pipe, is a different story: the water seeps slowly into the earth, unobserved by human eyes, and often wreaks havoc.

This was the sort of break that occurred on Hillary Avenue, a full nine feet of water main opening up like a scored banana. Yet Lezcano was fortunate, comparatively speaking. His basement wasn’t finished, and he had recently dug a trench around the outside of his cellar, exposing foundation braces he’d intended to repair himself. The trench acted as an ersatz drain, and the water in his cellar only rose to chest height. The basements of the neighbouring houses, on the other hand, filled to the ceiling joists, in some cases dampening carpet on the first floor.

Lezcano spent the following Monday dealing with the flood. First, he rented a sump pump from Home Depot, which he brought home and found useless against the huge volume of water. He returned to Home Depot, rented a more powerful pump, and took it home, only to find that it clogged with mud and sediment. At this point, he gave up and decided to deal with the problem in a manner he described as “Spanish style”: he, his wife and a friend all armed themselves with buckets and started slopping out the frigid water. By the end of the day, the water was mostly gone, leaving Lezcano to survey the wreckage. The furnace, water heater, and washer and dryer were all ruined. He put the damage at about $30,000, unless, of course, he needed a new foundation, in which case it would be much, much higher.

He went to bed, exhausted, only to be woken Tuesday by a city employee who had just finished taping a sign to Lezcano’s front window that read, in part, “Due to flooding of the basement, this building is deemed unsafe for occupancy.” The city worker then apologized to Lezcano and explained that he and his family had to get out.

(Illustration: Josh Cochran)

The municipal water supply system was invented by the Romans in 312 BC, when the magistrate Appius Claudius built a ceramic aqueduct leading from lakes in the hills surrounding Rome. This aqueduct sloped toward the city, where it filled the sumptuous baths enjoyed by emperors and commoners alike.

The Roman empire collapsed in AD 476, a demise caused, in part, by the Romans’ habit of enjoying marathon bacchanalias in baths fed by the very aqueducts that had forged the empire. Thus came the dominance of the Saxon and Gallic empires, both of which suffered from the notion that bathing regularly was unhealthy and, in some indefinable way, showy. The great non-Latin cities of the world, inspired by London’s fetid example, continued to use wells, creeks and brooks as a source of water. It was a practice that gained currency in the Dark Ages, managed to prevail throughout the Enlightenment, and crossed oceans into the New World. And while this system worked in small villages, it tended to fall apart as soon as a town’s population reached a critical mass: wells ran dry just when the townsfolk needed them most, and streams inevitably became filthy with cow excrement. (Today, in rural townships, preventing the latter is euphemistically referred to as “nutrient management.”)

The result was cholera. In the fledgling city of York, the first major outbreak of the water-borne illness hit in 1832, and in the scourge of 1834—the year in which Toronto became Toronto—about one out of every six residents perished from the disease. Horse-drawn “cholera cars” clopped through the streets, picking up the dead, and one entire hospital was dedicated to treating cholera, which amounted to giving patients a bed and hoping they recovered. William Lyon Mackenzie, the founding mayor, put it this way: “I have never seen anything in Europe to exceed the loathsome sights to be met within Toronto.”
Fortunately, the city had the wherewithal to implement regular garbage pickup, install sewers, create health boards, and generally clean up the filth that ran gurgling and pestilential through the muddy streets. Around 1850, council members concluded that the city needed a municipal water supply system, if only to make sure that the water used by Torontonians was both clean and unlikely to run out in the middle of a heat wave.

At this point, cities such as New York and Boston were following the example set by the Romans some 21 centuries earlier, and building pipes leading from watersheds in nearby mountains. This, however, would not work for Toronto; although the city sits on one of the biggest freshwater lakes on earth, that lake happens to be lower than the city. As far as gravity is concerned, that water is already right where it should be.

After two decades of consideration, Toronto finally began to install pumps and water mains. It took close to 30 years, and during the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s, Torontonians became accustomed to seeing workers exhuming city streets. An intake plant was built on Centre Island, with rudimentary filtration accomplished via a layer of coarse sand. The water was then sucked via steam-driven pumps to a station on John Street. Here, the water was pumped to the then-uncovered Rosehill reservoir near Yonge and St. Clair, where gravity allowed it to flow back down through the city.

The system grew along with the city. In 1906, the High Level Pumping Station was built on Cottingham Street, just beyond the shadow cast by Casa Loma. Another reservoir, fed by High Level, was added at St. Clair and Spadina—you can still play tennis and walk your dog on top of it—and the network of water mains flowing from both reservoirs expanded like the tentacles of an octopus. Today, the Centre Island treatment centre, the pumping stations on John and Cottingham, and the Rosehill reservoir are still in use, though the John Street pumping station has been moved twice to make space for new port facilities and the Rogers Centre. Some of the pipe laid during this period survives, as well. In January of this year, a service line leading to a transformer station on Davenport Avenue broke, resulting in the flood that caused the eight-hour Yorkville blackout. While fixing the service lead—i.e., the bit of pipe connecting individual homes and businesses to the water supply—city workers found a cast iron water main, still holding strong, that dated to the 1880s.

Pedro Lezcano could do nothing but watch as the water—which was swimming with insects and bacteria—slowly filled his basement, finally stopping at chest height. The basements of his neighbours’ houses filled to the ceiling joists, in some cases dampening the carpets on the first floor

By the 1920s, around the time that the water main was laid on Hillary Avenue, the Island facility was no longer drawing enough water to meet the needs of the city. To remedy this, the city works commissioner, Rowland Caldwell Harris, built his art deco water treatment plant on a promontory at the foot of Victoria Park; the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, in addition to ushering in the era of chemically assisted filtration, was capable of pumping 900 million litres of water a day into the system, making it one of the biggest intake facilities on the continent. (A quick note on the Harris: for most of its existence, it was open to public tours, art exhibits and any Hollywood film crew requiring a gloomy stand-in for a prison, train station or haunted mental hospital. That all changed with 9/11, and now the underground tunnels and walkways that comprise the plant—the walking of which, I can attest, does result in mild claustrophobia—are off limits.)

With the Harris plant on-line, Toronto’s water system grew steadily until 1954, the year Metro Toronto was formed. Suddenly, all those little settlements on the outskirts of the city—Long Branch, Mimico, Weston, Leaside and so on—joined Toronto’s water supply system. Water mains were laid at an accelerated pace, and to keep costs down, the city switched to a new type of cast iron called spun-cast, which was faster and cheaper to produce. There was just one problem. Though spun-cast is as strong as regular cast iron, it corrodes much more quickly, a significant detail that, inconveniently, no one realized at the time. Furthermore, the soil on the outskirts of the city has a much higher clay content, meaning that it is far more acidic, and therefore more corrosive, than the sandy soil of downtown.

Oblivious, the city kept laying spun-cast mains and extending the reach of our reser­voirs. In 1968, the city added yet another treatment facility near Lake Shore and Kipling called the R. L. Clarke. (Today the outermost reservoir is all the way up in Maple, and there is a fourth intake facility in Scarborough called the F. J. Horgan. All told, a considerable 1.4 billion litres of water flows through the city of Toronto per day.) This unbridled expansion, in turn, resulted in the principal irony of Toronto’s water supply system. The newer pipes, located in the outskirts of the city, are popping at a faster clip than the older pipes; the recent breaks on Albion, Holly­berry and York Mills all involved ’50s-era infrastructure. To find out how the city plans to remedy this, I visited the 24th floor of the east tower of city hall. In a large office lined with old black-and-white photos of water treatment plants, I met the general manager of Toronto Water, an impeccably polite civil servant named Lou Di Gironimo who knows more about our water supply system than any other person on earth.

According to Di Gironimo, in 2010 the city will spend $91.5 million replacing our most dysfunctional water mains with new pipes made from either PVC (which works well at small diameters and tends to rupture at larger diameters) or ductile iron. The problem is that new pipes are expensive and difficult to install. As a result, the city is spending $35.5 million on the Watermain Rehabilitation Project. Pipes with even an ounce of life left in them are refurbished via a trio of methods, the most common of which is called cathodic protection. When a metal pipe sits in acidic soil, an electrical current is created; in the business, this is called electrolysis. Though the current is undeniably small, it is this charge that causes a water main to corrode. With cathodic protection, city workers attach a small line to the pipe, which attaches to a small pad—yes, it’s called a cathode—that is made from a softer metal than the pipe. Attracted by this, the electrical charge bypasses the watermain and goes straight to the cathode. There is a catch, however. Cathodic protection works for only about 20 years, at which point the cathode becomes so corroded that the current reverts back to the water main itself. The city has been doing cathodic protection for years, and as far as I can tell, the Watermain Rehabilitation Project essentially means that, these days, they’re just doing a hell of a lot more of it. It’s a band-aid solution, albeit one that is keeping our water supply system intact till the day comes when the whole thing is replaced—city workers are already revisiting pipes that were cathodically protected 20 years ago and cathodically protecting them again.

“If your basement gets flooded, you can try to take the city to court and prove that we’ve been negligent—that we haven’t been showing up to do service calls, or that we haven’t been maintaining that site. But I have to tell you, that’s going to be pretty hard to do”

The long-range plan, meanwhile, is for the city’s budget for both water main replacement and rehabilitation to increase in a way that will, with any luck, mirror the rate at which our water main system breaks down. For example, in 2011, the city plans to spend $98.3 million on water main replacement and $36 million on rehabilitation. In 2012, those figures will climb to $105 and $37 million. In 2013, each will go up again, and so on, until all the decrepit pipe in the system is either replaced or fixed. If you’ve been wondering where your recent water rate increases are going, trust me when I say it has nothing to do with the price of water.

“We have an aging system,” Di Gironimo told me. “And a ton of spun-cast from the ’50s. We know we’re going to run into even more problems. Hopefully, we’ve got a strategy in place that will head off the worst of it.”

When a city water main breaks and floods your basement, it is your insurance company, not the city’s, that covers the damage. If you don’t have home insurance—which was the case with Pedro Lezcano—then you’re out of luck. “The only thing you can do,” Di Gironimo says, “is take the city to court and prove that we’ve been negligent with regards to that particular water main. To do that, you’d have to prove that we haven’t been showing up to do service calls, or that we haven’t been maintaining that site. But I have to tell you, that’s going to be pretty hard to do.”

More dispiriting is the fact that flood damage is not the only expense faced by victims of a water main break. After Lezcano moved his family into the house of a friend, a fellow Paraguayan who lives near the airport, Lezcano learned that, in order to move back into his own home, he had to prove to the city that his home was habitable. To do this, he had to obtain favourable reports from an electrician, an engineer and a mould expert, all of which he had to pay for himself.

On the day I met Lezcano, he had already ordered a new furnace and water heater. He had obtained a passing report from the electrician ($1,200) and the engineer ($600) and was waiting for the mould inspector. Yet as Lezcano showed me around the property—the basement contents piled up in the backyard, the inky waterline on the basement wall, the waterlogged furnace—I noticed a strange thing. He was smiling, and I asked him whether it was because his house had fared better than some of his neighbours’. “Oh no,” he told me with a laugh. “It’s nothing like that. Tomorrow, the mould inspector is going to come, and I know the house is going to pass. To be honest, I’m just looking forward to moving back home.”

It was an occasion that would have to wait. The mould inspector arrived later that week and ruled that, with humidity levels far in excess of 40 per cent, the home was uninhabitable. The inspector set up industrial dehumidifiers on each floor and came back the following week. Again, he ruled Lezcano’s house was unsafe, just as he did on his third visit. Finally, on the fourth visit, the inspector presented Lezcano with two things: a document certifying that his house was ready for his family’s return, and a bill for $6,000. Though Lezcano is not particularly hopeful, he has contacted a lawyer to see if he might somehow recoup some of the money from the city. “But you know what?” he told me. “It’s just material things. If something had happened to my wife or children, that would be a different matter.”

On February 7, more than a month after the flood, the family finally moved back in. Though the gas and power were back on, Lezcano discovered that somehow, during all the turmoil, the phone lines to the house had been damaged. They all got to work, cleaning the mess in the basement and yard, painting muddied walls, sanguine with the knowledge that things could have been worse. Half of his affected neighbours were still not allowed in their houses.