Winnipeg struggles with bypass repair after burst pipe spews sewage into Red River

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Red River
Signs of a problem began in November 2023, when inspection crews found a leak in one of two pipes crossing the Red River (pictured), which were installed in 1970. Photo Credit: Jim, stock.adobe.com

Winnipeg spilled more than 228 million litres of raw sewage into the Red River since February 7, as maintenance crews worked to create a functioning bypass for a burst pipe near the Fort Garry Bridge. 

As crews tried to address one of the largest sewage incidents for the city in more than a decade, they also logged their efforts in daily updates to Winnipeg’s online reports system for incidents of untreated sewage release into the environment.  

Signs of a problem began in November 2023, when inspection crews found a leak in one of two pipes crossing the Red River, which were installed in 1970. They direct sewage from the southwest part of Winnipeg to the South End Sewage Treatment Plant. One pipe was taken out of service; however, the second pipe burst following temporary repairs.  

As the flow from the D’Arcy Pumping Station continued to discharge to the Red River from the 900-mm overflow outfall, the Water and Waste Department hired a contractor to install an emergency bypass pumping system. After getting the system operational on February 14, it soon experienced a mechanical failure and needed to be turned off, according to a maintenance log.   

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“The mechanical problems that affected the bypass pump are still being investigated to determine the cause,” states a report on the infrastructure challenge.   

Tim Shanks, director of the Water and Waste Department, said crews and contractors have been “working tirelessly to address the leak”, and get a more stable bypass system in place. He called the real-time adjustments “incredibly delicate work”. 

By February 17, one of the pumps for the bypass system at the Fort Garry Bridge was operational. Until the second pump was ready, city officials asked residents to conserve water. 

“Under normal circumstances, the work involved in building a bypass system of this type is very challenging and would take upwards of five weeks. But we’ve been considerably expediting efforts to stop the leak,” Shanks said in a statement. 

Following mechanical repairs, the second pump needed to handle the flow in the sewer system was installed on the evening of February 21, when the final discharge occurred. Shanks explained that a risk of intermittent spills remained while crews “continue to improve the reliability and operation of the bypass system over the next few days.” 

The situation was made much more complicated because crews would normally be able to run equipment through a barrage of tests both off-site and on-site, before going into operation, Shanks said. 

Work to replace the pipes completely will begin right away, with construction continuing into 2025, said local officials. 

In interviews with Winnipeg media, several city councilors expressed concern that so much sewage in the Red River could increase levels of nitrogen and phosphorus to the point of creating more green algae in Lake Winnipeg.  

Councillor Russ Wyatt put forward a motion calling on the province to fine the city $4 for every litre spilled, which would total more than $900,000,000. 

Chiefs of the Treaty One Nations released a statement at the beginning of the Fort Garry Bridge sewer interceptor crossing repairs, that raised concerns over the initial communication of the leak.   

“While acknowledging the efforts to assemble a bypass system to halt the sewage leak, the Treaty One Nations stress the need for a proactive, rather than reactive, response by the City of Winnipeg,” notes a Treaty One Nations statement.   

The sewage incident also led to lane closures on the Fort Garry Bridge.  

Winnipeg is currently involved in a Combined Sewer Overflow Master Plan to upgrade and manage the effects of combined sewer overflows on its waterways. 

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