Oak Bay has approved a 30-year plan to solve the problem of effluent contaminating beaches when heavy rains overtax its sewage system. That might seem like a long time, but the problem is more than a century old. Progress won’t be speedy, but it will be steady.
And it won’t take the entire 30 years to see results — improvements will come in increments as each phase of the plan is developed.
The municipality’s council gave unanimous approval this week to a $21.5-million program to separate storm and sanitary sewers in Uplands.
When sewage lines were laid in that area, beginning about 1910, stormwater drainage and household sewage used a single line. During heavy rainfall — which occurs about 12 times a year — the system can become overwhelmed, sending raw sewage into the ocean at the Rutland and Humber pumping stations.
After years of discussion, months of study and ample opportunity for public input, the council settled on a plan that will include building a new shallow storm sewer, with municipally owned stormwater pumping stations where needed. The existing pipe will be used for sanitary sewage.
Laying new pipe for stormwater drainage will bring fairly quick results on the overflows, says Mayor Nils Jensen. “Had we chosen the new pipe to be sanitary sewage, we would have not seen any results until the whole project is finished.”
More than 20 per cent of Uplands homeowners have already separated stormwater sewer from sanitary sewer on their properties in the course of undertaking new construction and renovations, says a staff report.
The plan calls for separation of the combined sewers over the next 30 years. The Humber catchment — with 150 properties — could be completed within the first 10 years. The Rutland catchment, which has 263 properties, would be completed in the subsequent 20 years.
Jensen said he hopes that timeline can be accelerated through federal and provincial grants.
The problem isn’t confined to Oak Bay. In older areas of Victoria, sewer lines laid down 100 years ago were often fragile clay pipes, buried in common trenches alongside storm drains. When the sewer line decays, the result is cross-contamination. Basically, household waste leaks into the storm drain and ends up wherever that pipe empties.
Municipalities are aware of this, and aging infrastructure is slowly being replaced.
Even without sewage contamination, stormwater can be a problem. A study done in 2010 by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic determined that stormwater runoff “is our biggest water-pollution challenge.”
“Indeed, most toxic chemicals entering local waterways likely come from runoff,” said the report to the Capital Regional District.
“Runoff also periodically delivers fecal contaminants to waterways, leading to public-health advisories. … Stormwater has helped destroy our once-abundant salmon streams. Its high velocity erodes stream banks and silts water, destroying salmon habitat — and its temperature and toxins kill fish.”
The report contained a host of recommendations on managing stormwater, including a regional approach, as watershed issues are not restricted to individual municipalities.
Awareness of the need to handle stormwater is growing, and municipalities are taking steps. Victoria, for example, has implemented a stormwater management program that includes encouraging the capture of rainwater to irrigate landscape, and methods that allow the runoff to diffuse slowly back into the natural water table.
But we should keep working on regional approaches to managing our wastes, as well as constantly being aware of what we allow to flow into our waterways.
At a time when everything is instant, the Oak Bay plan seems drawn out, but councillors are looking beyond the next election cycle to the century ahead.