Low carbon water management in Toronto: as reliable as nuclear electricity

The R.C. Harris water treatment plant in the east Beaches is one of four plants that supply the city of Toronto with clean water. The four plants are capable of moving nearly a million tons of water per day through the system; normally they move just over 400,000 tons. They do this with electric pumps. The electricity comes from the Ontario grid, which means Toronto’s water is mostly nuclear powered and therefore is low-carbon; see Tables 1 and 2 on the left-hand sidebar.

Pump Hall, R.C. Harris water treatment plant, Toronto Ontario. These pumps use about one megawatt each of electricity to move treated water into Toronto’s system. All of Toronto’s water is moved through the city with electric pumps. So without electricity, Toronto would quickly run out of water. By far most of Toronto’s electricity comes from Ontario’s three nuclear power plants. Which means that Toronto’s water has a very low carbon footprint. Photo by Rick Maltese

I have harped in previous articles about Toronto’s—and every other modern city’s—utter dependence on electricity. The above points about Toronto’s water further underlines the importance of electricity. The reason why you couldn’t remain for much longer than a few short hours in a 15th floor apartment without electricity is directly related to your need for water. Humans need to ingest between 2 and 3 litres per day, but that assumes a normal level of physical exertion.

Without electricity, you would need to walk fifteen flights of stairs to reach your 15th floor unit. Is that a normal level of physical exertion? Of course it isn’t. So up that 2 to 3 litres to something more realistic. That means something more substantial. And remember that because there is no electricity you have to carry all your water up fifteen floors. Water weighs 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) per litre. Try carrying say 20 litres up 15 floors. It is physically possible, but as the primary means to carry water to a 15th floor unit it is obviously not viable. Without electricity, apartment units above about two floors are simply uninhabitable. And that goes for just about every human habitation outside of a single detached home.

And bear in mind that so far I have talked only about water’s importance as the fluid of life; I have not even mentioned its use as the main waste-disposal vehicle. Much of the average Toronto resident’s 253-litre-per-day water requirement has to do with using the toilet. The 2 to 3 litres we humans each ingest every day also flow out of us, if you know what I mean. Without a functioning municipal water system, how exactly would that outflow work? Most of us don’t even want to think about it. But without adequate waste disposal, diseases like cholera and dysentery spring up extremely quickly. I once participated in a mock refugee scenario stage-managed by Medicins Sans Frontieres. The first priorities in settling a refugee camp, no matter how temporary, are securing a source of water and digging latrines.

I visited R.C. Harris the other day; it was part of Doors Open Ontario. I just love going to places like this. I am always amazed and impressed when I see large-scale engineering that addresses problems I myself deal with on a hands-on basis when I am at my hibernacle in the wintertime. As I have described, I do most of the water by hand: I saw a hole in the ice, fetch water in a pail, carry it into the building, pour it into a pot and warm it on either an electric- or wood-heated stove. What I don’t do is treat it: I just bring a jug of city water up with me and use that for drinking and cooking. Not to brag, but I know from first-hand experience how much work it takes to move and heat water.

But the best thing about my Sunday tour of R.C. Harris was that I was accompanied by a crowd of other interested people. Every municipal citizen should familiarize himself or herself with the basic facts of city life. Water is of course one of those basic things; electricity is the other.

How many Toronto residents are aware of their utter dependence on electric power for their mere urban existence? Perhaps those who visited R.C. Harris on Sunday. But precious few besides them.

And of those who appreciate the central importance of electricity in every aspect of their daily life, how many know that most of their electricity comes from nuclear plants?

Other articles on the energy implications of water management:

Counting calories in Ontario electricity: how to avoid economic hypothermia

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10 years ago

The eternal physics student in me notes that a 100 kg person living on the 15th floor could easily lift 100 liters of water from ground level to their apartment by riding down on a platform carrying an empty 100-liter container, with the platform supported by a rope going over a pulley to another platform carrying a full 100-liter container up again.

Practical?  Hell, no.  But certainly worth thinking about as an out-of-the-box thinking exercise.

10 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

That would be him moving out of the apartment and the 100 L of water moving in.

How high did tenements get in Rome? About five stories, as I recall.
Much higher, of course, in far Eastern polities where they practiced
religious levitation.

olga lenko aplin
10 years ago

Dear Steve: Like a good teacher you are using everyday usages of power to make your point about nuclear energy. Keep up the good work. See you soon. Mom