The golden flush...

A well-run civic water system has two efficient parts: water treatment to ensure the delivery of safe, clean drinking water, and sewage treatment to remove waste water from homes and businesses and return it to the environment in the cleanest way possible.

Toronto's first system for delivering water to its households was developed in 1843. The Toronto Gas, Light, and Water Company was formed to pipe water to subscribing households, but it was slow to get established: fifteen years later, only 900 out of 9,500 households had piped-in water. Eventually, in 1872, the city set up a publicly administered water system. It was crucial to fight epidemics of cholera and typhus that spread through unhygenic public wells and taps.

Now, Toronto has four water treatment plants, processing more than 1 billion litres of water every day. There is one on Centre Island, and three on the mainland. The R.C. Harris Water Filtration plant on the shore of Lake Ontario at the foot of Victoria Park Ave. provides nearly half of our drinking water and is the only plant listed as an architectural treasure. (Its importance was recognised by the 1998 Ontario Heritage Act). Its name commemorates the city's long-serving and far-sighted Commissioner of Works, the man who also brought us the Prince Edward viaduct over the Don Valley, complete with a level for a subway that wouldn't be built for decades. Roland Caldwell Harris was Toronto's Commissioner of Works from 1912 until his death from a heart attack in 1945. Some of his supporters blamed his death on the stress of trying to improve the growing city's infrastructure on a limited budget, with opposition from penny-pinching members of council, a battle present-day city engineers will sympathise with.

The city's main sewage treatment plant, at Ashbridge's Bay, opened in 1951 to replace a 1913 facility on Eastern Avenue, which overflowed frequently, sending sewage into the surrounding neighbourhood. R.C. Harris had wanted the plant to be built much further east, at Highland Creek in Scarborough where the solid residue could be sold to farmers in the area as fertilizer. The city, however, went with a cheaper option, locating the new plant in the city and planning to incinerate the waste. The unpopular smokestack would finally be decommissioned in 2007, but it still marks our skyline.

We enjoy access to clean, safe water because we live on a lake, in a city criss-crossed by rivers and creeks, in a country with stringent measures against pollution but there is always more we can do. A new campaign, launched by the Ontario Clean Water Agency and the Clean Water Foundation is called "I Don't Flush." It is designed to raise awareness of the dangers of using the toilet as an extension of the garbage can. For example, when unwanted medication is flushed down the toilet, it can end up in the water supply or in local lakes and rivers, putting fish at risk. Return unused pills and medicines to the pharmacy for safe disposal. The only things that should go down the toilet are the things that should go down the toilet. Tissues, dental floss, cotton swabs,, baby wipes, adult diapers, and other paper products should go into the garbage. The sewer system has a series of grates designed to stop large solids, such as tin cans and other garbage from getting into the pipes, and these things are small, but if they clump together they can cause blockages: in some cities, huge collections of grease and solids block the sewers and cause them to overflow on a monthly basis.

Another exciting environmental campaign to hit social media is the series of "Nature Doesn't Need People" films. Actors such as Juiia Roberts and Kevin Spacey portray "Nature," explaining why human beings are unlikely to come out on top when they abuse the environment. It's thought-provoking and if it takes celebrities to make us listen to this message, so be it: click here to see some of them.

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