There’s something foul in Galt and yes — it’s the sewage plant.

Five times since Oct. 23 the plant on Water Street South has discharged partly treated sewage into the Grand River, spilling it by accident or by deliberately bypassing a portion of treatment process.

More than two million litres flowed into the river this way by Nov. 9. That’s almost enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool. It includes 18,000 litres with only primary treatment, a level deemed of higher risk to the environment.

Provincial records released to The Record show the Galt plant has spilled sewage or bypassed treatment 16 times this year. It’s a high number. But the plant is far from the only one to falter.

An analysis by the newspaper reveals 296 sewage discharges by 160 facilities or locations since 2007, in Waterloo Region and the counties of Wellington and Brant. It happens once a week on average.

Facilities that falter are commonly municipal treatment plants. But discharges are also reported from pumping stations, businesses, schools, farms and residences. The tally includes 174 discharges deemed of highest environmental concern because the sewage is raw or barely treated.

In Waterloo Region, council has more than doubled sewage bills while spending hundreds of millions to reconstruct sewage plants, even as the volume of sewage falls. Upgrades are intended to improve the health of the Grand River that absorbs treated sewage.

However, little of this spending will address the problem of sewage that’s spilled or bypasses treatment. That’s because the higher priority is to improve the quality of effluent discharged after full treatment.

While the volume of regional sewage that bypasses treatment, often during heavy rain, has reached 601 million litres since 2008, it’s still just a fraction of one per cent of all sewage treated.

“Do you spend millions of dollars for a storm event that happens (rarely)?” Regional Chair Ken Seiling said. “The emphasis with this is upgrades to effluent quality.”

That’s not ideal, says Wayne Parker, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on improving sewage treatment.

“I don’t think you can trade one off versus the other,” he said of effluent quality and bypasses. “Ideally we should deal with both.”

The analysis of 296 sewage discharges since 2007 reveals 186 are accidental spills and 110 are deliberate bypasses of treatment.

When sewage plants face maintenance or are overwhelmed by rain that seeps into leaky pipes, the Ministry of the Environment allows operators to bypass treatment. Cities must report spills or bypasses immediately so downstream cities can close their water intake systems.

“Sewage bypassing occurs during wet weather to prevent flooding of treatment plants and sewage backups that threaten human health by flooding streets and basements,” ministry spokesperson Kate Jordan said. “The ministry recognizes that bypassing is necessary to prevent immediate risks to public health and communities.”

In Galt, the environment ministry blames recent sewage discharges on high rainfall, maintenance and a blocked filter. “The ministry will continue working with the treatment plant to ensure that such incidents are reduced and mitigated,” Jordan said.

The Guelph sewage treatment plant leads with 27 spills and bypasses since 2007 according to ministry records. But all the discharged sewage had significant treatment and the environmental impact is considered minor. “They were all small volume and of low concern,” said Janet Laird, executive director for the environment for the City of Guelph.

Regional council plans to spend $731 million by 2022 to upgrade sewage treatment. To help pay for this, politicians have more than doubled household sewage bills since 2003. It’s estimated that only 15 per cent of planned work is required by provincial or federal regulations.

“The work that they’re doing will definitely have an impact but of course it comes at a very significant expense,” said Parker of UW.

Construction is underway or planned at seven of 13 regional treatment plants, with near-complete overhauls in Kitchener and Waterloo. Work is also planned in Elmira, Galt, Preston, Hespeler and New Hamburg.

In Waterloo about $120 million will be spent. “I think the dollars are justified,” Waterloo Coun. Sean Strickland said. “We have a social and environmental responsibility of making sure the effluent is as clean as possible.”

Work in Kitchener will cost more than $370 million. Upgrades include a new ultraviolet disinfection facility, new effluent pumping station, administration building upgrades and treatment upgrades. “It adds up to a big number,” Kitchener Coun. Tom Galloway said. “It’s not a very glamorous service.”

The Hespeler plant in Cambridge will get extra capacity but the Kitchener plant will not.

Managing bypasses depends partly on co-operation between local governments. Local cities and townships collect the sewage the region treats. They are often responsible for leaky pipes that let in too much water and overwhelm treatment.

Strickland hopes construction at regional treatment plants will help reduce bypasses. That would be good news for downstream municipalities like the City of Brantford that draw all their drinking water from the Grand. Waterloo Region draws 20 per cent of drinking water from the Grand and the rest from underground.

In 2009 Brantford asked the Ministry of Environment to take action against upstream cities that discharge undertreated sewage.

“Our concern was that the number of spills was high,” said Selvi Kongara, director of environmental services in Brantford. Work between governments has helped protect Brantford’s water supply, mostly with better reporting, he said.

Who discharges sewage without full treatment?

Top three facilities for all discharges regardless of severity:

1. Guelph sewage treatment plant — 27 (14 spills, 13 bypasses)

2. Galt sewage treatment plant — 25 (8 spills, 17 bypasses)

3. Elmira sewage treatment plant — 13 (1 spill, 12 bypasses)

Top three facilities for discharges of highest environmental concern:

1. Mount Forest sewage treatment plant — 9 (all bypasses)

2. Elmira sewage treatment plant — 7 (1 spill, 6 bypasses)

3. Waterloo sewage treatment plant — 5 (2 spills, 3 bypasses)

From Jan. 2007 to Nov. 9, 2012 in Region of Waterloo, Wellington County and Brant County. Incidents regardless of volume.

Highest environmental concern is sewage classified as raw or primary, unchlorinated.

Source: Ministry of the Environment

Costs spiral while sewage falls

Waterloo Region residents are paying far more to treat less sewage.

• The volume of treated sewage fell to 66.4 billion litres in 2011 — down three billion litres since 2008.

• The average household bill for sewage treatment reached $148 in 2011 — up $40 since 2008. In 2013 the average bill is expected to reach $172.

• The regional cost to treat sewage reached $29 million in 2011 — up $6 million since 2008.

• The 10-year spending forecast for sewage treatment upgrades reached $717 million in 2011 — up $223 million since 2008.

Source: Region of Waterloo

Who fails the least?

Share of sewage that bypassed treatment over four years.

Brantford: .003% (2 million litres)

York Region: 0.01% (47 million litres)

Waterloo Region: 0.22% (601 million litres)

London: 0.26% (799 million litres)

Windsor: 2.45% (8 billion litres)

Hamilton: 3.36% (17 billion litres)

Source: Municipal Performance Measurement Program, 2008-2011/