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Taking Back Lake Ontario: The Gord Downie Pier Opens in Kingston

 I was one of the several hundred people who recently attended the official unveiling of the Gord Edgar Downie Pier at the newly restored Breakwater Park in Kingston.

View from Gord E. Downie Pier at Kingston’s Breakwater Park (photo by R. Lindgren).

Moments after the dedication ceremony was completed, many people (including me) jumped off the Pier into the cool sparkling waters of Lake Ontario.

The author jumping from the Gord E. Downie Pier on July 26, 2018 (photo by L. Lindgren).

Spearheaded by Swim Drink Fish Canada and funded by a private foundation and all three levels of government, this Park revitalization project features beach upgrades, accessibility improvements, shoreline stabilization and landscaping.

The Park stretches for several blocks along Kingston’s urban waterfront. The deep-water Pier was named after Canadian icon (and hometown hero) Gord Downie to honour his environmental work, particularly in conjunction with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.

The author and Mark Mattson (right), Waterkeeper and President of Swim Drink Fish Canada, at the Gord E. Downie Pier (photo by L. Lindgren).

Two days after the unveiling ceremony, hundreds of area residents participated in a mass swim at the Pier. The Pier is now listed in the Great Lakes Guide to direct people to Kingston’s new jewel in the crown.

The remarkable transformation of Breakwater Park is all the more impressive when one recalls the serious water pollution issues that have plagued Kingston in past decades.

For example, while growing up in Kingston, my friends and I used to fish for bass from the Pier, (then known as the Public Utilities Commission dock, which was an old dilapidated structure). However, we were often warned by our parents not to swim off the dock. This parental warning (which was usually ignored) stemmed from public health concerns about sewage treatment bypasses and combined sewage overflows (CSO’s) along Kingston’s waterfront.

In 2005, after a massive bypass discharged 52 million litres of sewage debris into the lake and onto nearby Wolfe Island, CELA worked with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper to press the Ontario government for long overdue provincial reforms in relation to sewage approvals.

In the wake of this controversy, municipal officials and Utilities Kingston staff decided to implement a number of key steps to address the ongoing issue, including:

  • expediting the separation of the city’s storm and sanitary sewers;
  • constructing large underground storage facilities to intercept and prevent CSO’s from reaching the lake; and
  • establishing a protocol for notifying the Environment Ministry, public health unit officials, and downstream communities whenever bypasses or CSOs occur.

At the present time, Utilities Kingston posts real-time information on its wastewater website in order to provide residents with timely notification about when or where sewage discharges are occurring during wet weather conditions.

The author being interviewed by Krystyn Tully (left), Vice President of Swim Drink Fish Canada, at the opening of the Gord E. Downie Pier (photo by L. Lindgren).

By making these important sewage-related improvements, and by enhancing public access to the lake, it is clear that Kingston is taking huge strides in making Lake Ontario swimmable, drinkable and fishable.

In addition, given the sizeable financial investment in the Breakwater Park redevelopment, it is readily apparent that public officials – and local citizens – now have a vested interest in safeguarding water quality along Kingston’s waterfront.

In CELA’s view, other municipalities throughout the Great Lakes basin would be well-advised to consider and follow Kingston’s lead in re-connecting people with their water resources.