When it rains, do you think about where that water is going once it hits the ground? Stormwater actually plays a large role in the health of Ottawa’s creeks and rivers. Where it goes once it hits the ground and what it picks up along the way can heavily impact the aquatic habitats and recreational activities that the Ottawa River provides. So, what is being done to manage it?
Ottawa is working to mitigate the negative effects of uncontrolled stormwater runoff with the “Rain Ready Ottawa” pilot project. In the City of Ottawa’s words, “Rain Ready Ottawa is a pilot program that encourages and supports residents to take action on their property to reduce the harmful impacts of rainwater runoff.” The program offers home assessments to residents and solutions to rainwater management and a rebate of up to $5,000 for installations that help manage rainwater. The overarching goal is to protect our watershed.
We all live in a watershed where water from rain or snowmelt eventually drains into a larger body of water. Managing the water quality in a watershed is essential to maintaining the quality of water in our larger ecosystem. Here in Ottawa, watershed runoff eventually ends up in one of the larger water bodies (drainage basins) that we depend on in different ways. The Ottawa River for instance is the source water for more than one million people in Ontario and Quebec.
Untreated water from lakes, rivers, or groundwater aquifers that is used to supply drinking water systems is known as source water. The quality of stormwater runoff affects the health of our source water. Its protection safeguards public health by protecting our municipal drinking water supply. If water sources become contaminated, treatment can be much more expensive or even impossible.
One major concern in Ottawa with stormwater is the effect it has on the health of the Ottawa River. The ecosystem services we derive from the Ottawa River like recreation and food source are threatened if the river is in poor health. The goals are to optimize the recreational use of the Ottawa River, by reducing beach closures as well as maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems in the creeks and rivers. To begin, the City identified two priority areas: Pinecrest Creek/Westboro and the Eastern Subwatersheds, that never had the infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of stormwater on their creeks and the Ottawa River. This is because they are old neighborhoods that were built before integrated stormwater management became part of city planning. Both these areas contain creeks that drain into the Ottawa River and beaches along the river, which is another reason they have been prioritized for this project over other areas. The lack of stormwater management infrastructure has led to poor water quality in the creeks and the Ottawa River, causing effects such as: Westboro Beach being closed during rainfall, erosion affecting the fish habitats in the creeks, and increased susceptibility of flooding of the Ottawa River Parkway. The Retrofit Plan aims at getting residents to install rain barrels, add rain gardens and install downspouts to divert rain from impervious to pervious surfaces. The city’s website contains useful resources on what can be done at the individual level to manage stormwater. Other ways to manage stormwater include the use of oil and grit separators, underground storage tanks, culverts, and roadside ditches.
While the Ottawa River Action Plan (ORAP) is projected to have a 50-year time frame, the retrofits mentioned above help residents to have a positive impact on Ottawa’s aquatic ecosystems and the recreational benefits they provide. ORAP consists of 17 different projects aimed at improving the health of the Ottawa River and protecting Ottawa's water environment for future generations by reducing the impact of combined sewage overflows and stormwater. As storm drains are channeled to our rivers, lakes, and streams, contaminated rainwater emptied in our waterbodies can harm life in and around the water, and humans. Stormwater runoff collects pollutants along the way.
It is important to prevent various forms of pollutants like fertilizer, soap products, litter, oil, pet feces, and construction materials from entering storm drains to protect our water. In built-up urban areas, impervious surfaces lead to 45% much more water runoff than natural surfaces. During a big storm, storm sewers can fill up quickly and overflow, leading to flooding. Heavy rain can cause waterways to swell with fast-moving water that can erode streambanks degrading fish habitat and threatening property and infrastructure.
Stormwater management reduces the risks caused by uncontrolled runoff. Municipal infrastructure like stormwater ponds temporarily holds water back. These human-made ponds collect runoff and slow down the flow. Dirt and other pollutants can settle and be broken down by plants and bacteria. Cleaner water leaves the ponds at a controlled rate, and there is less danger of flooding and erosion downstream. In suburban and rural communities, stormwater ponds blend into the landscape, beautifying them. Some look like natural lakes and are a habitat for fish, ducks, and birds. Others are designed to be dry most of the time; they simply look like depression in a park or field. During a storm, they will fill up with rainwater to relieve the downstream drainage system.
We all can take simple actions in our homes that soak up the rain and prevent runoff. We reduce our impact on our waterways by avoiding paint and oil spills on the ground, use environmentally friendly pesticides and herbicides, properly maintaining our vehicles to avoid oil spills, etc,. This is to prevent contaminating rainwater runoff. Managing rain where it falls is important to prevent pollution thereby maintaining clean and healthy waterbodies and enjoying the ecosystem services our waters provide us. All residents, properties, and businesses in Ottawa benefit from stormwater management. It keeps streets and basements dry, local waterways healthy, and our drinking water sources clean. While the Rain Ready project is a welcome undertaking, it is important to extend support to every neighborhood in Ottawa to educate and encourage them to take actions that soak up water. Contact your councillor today and demand that your neighborhood receives support to take part in stormwater management.
Written by Adaku Echendu and Esther Jasmann
Adaku Echendu— We all have a role to play in making the universe whole, just like the tiny pieces in a puzzle.
Esther Jasmann—I am passionate about cities and they way they work. I am currently pursuing a Masters in Global Challenges at the University of Edinburgh.