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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.