Making a splash -- not
Toronto isn't exactly blessed with rainfall. We receive, on average, 695 millimetres (just over 27 inches) of the wet stuff a year, about twice as much as the bone-dry prairie provinces. Every drop counts.
The problem, in concrete terms
Roads, sidewalks, parking lots, roofs. Toronto may have its share of parks and green space, but an astonishing 70 per cent of the city is covered by hard surfaces. As a result, only half of the rain that falls is absorbed into the soil, as nature intended.
Instead of replenishing the water table, rain that falls on hard surfaces gathers pollutants and carries the toxic cocktail directly to our rivers and waterfront. But that's just the half of it. Rainwater travelling over hard surfaces picks up heat and speed - it takes barely 30 minutes for rainwater to travel from your yard to local rivers in a rainstorm, hastening erosion and warming water temps in rivers so that fish that rely on cold water habitats can't survive.
Storm in our sewers
The lack of permeable surfaces and the increase in the number of extreme rainstorms caused by global warming are combining to overwhelm our sewer system, prompting flash floods and spilling raw sewage directly into our waterways. This happens, on average, some 70 times a year from the 79 city sewers discharging stormwater directly into our water courses. Our beleaguered and beloved Don owes a staggering 71 per cent of its total flow to stormwater. Yuk.
No drop in the bucket
The torrent caused by our asphalt and concrete obsession carries not just environmental but also economic consequences. For example, the rainstorm that swamped the Don and flooded basements across Toronto last August cost the city a cool $34 million in damage repairs. Some $400 million is paid out by insurance companies to cover damage caused by basement flooding every year.
Five things you can do
1. Disconnect your downspout (the city will do it for you for free; 416-392-1807) and reroute stormwater to a permeable surface like your front lawn or flower bed.
2. Collect and store rainwater in barrels and use it later to nourish your trees, lawn and garden. For the really radical, there's rainwater harvesting: using pumps to get rainwater collected from runoff (usually in cisterns) to help meet your daily household needs. Hey, it's mandatory in parts of Australia and some European countries, like Belgium and Germany.
3. Naturalize Replace hard surfaces with natural groundcover (think native plants, hedges and bushes; they use less water and are easier to take care of). And choose porous paving - your driveway only needs pavers where your car's tires travel - to allow rainfall to soak into the ground and follow its natural cycle. For the more ambitious, gravel-lined "soak-away" pits and vegetated swales can help filter rainwater contaminants and re-energize our groundwater supply. And did we mention roof gardens?
4. Go chemical free We've said it a million times and we'll say it again: most of the pollution in our water is not from single large sources but from many smaller ones - like the crap you throw down your drain, or the mad gardener across the street with the grass obsession who insists on squirting weeds with a bottle of Killex. It all ends up polluting our waterways. Even the stuff you toss in landfill eventually seeps into the water table. There are alternatives, you know.
5. Use less Ninety-seven per cent of all available water on earth is saltwater, 2 per cent is frozen in the icecaps, and part of the remaining 1 per cent is too far underground to use. So conservation is key. You can start by taking your car to a car wash - it does a better job, reuses washwater and filters wastewater before discharging it to sanitary sewers. And for heaven's sake, use a broom to clean your walk or driveway. Convert to a higher-efficiency washer and toilet - the city will pay you ($60 for a washer, $60-$75 for a toilet) to do it (416-392-7000 or e-mail email@example.com to receive an application kit).
Sources: RiverSides Stewardship Alliance; www.torontorainguide.org, city of Toronto