Editorial: Time dwindles for sewage plan

No one ever imagined it would be easy to build a new wastewater system for the capital region. There were competing technologies to consider, differences of opinion between municipalities, the tendency of government projects to overrun their budgets.

Then the process suffered a major disruption when Esquimalt council rejected the location initially favoured — McLoughlin Point — and the province declined to overrule it. In effect, that granted a veto to each of the municipalities involved and made consensus-finding more difficult.

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Still, not even the most confirmed skeptic could have foreseen the train wreck now emerging. Last December Nils Jensen, mayor of Oak Bay and a member of the liquid-waste committee, warned that an imminent deadline might not be met. On March 31, a portion of federal funding — about $80 million — expires.

If Jensen hoped the threat of a fiscal hanging would concentrate minds, he hoped in vain. Since then, the wheels have completely fallen off.

Four separate locations are still on the table (and others proposed), none of which has been purchased or zoned by the Capital Regional District. Yet federal funding is conditional on these steps being taken before March 31.

Langford and Colwood are now talking about building their own plant. And this week Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell said he might also favour breaking ranks and going it alone.

Meanwhile, the CRD is launching public consultations, despite serious doubts about the wisdom of that course.

“I really have to question why we’re going out to the public at this time … We don’t have solid information here,” said Vic Derman, a Saanich representative on the CRD board.

And Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps added: “This will not be a referendum.” But what purpose, then, will it serve?

By all means, let residents know where you’re headed, and why. But in the time available, and on such a technical matter, the public can play only the most limited of roles.

Take the matter of cost. The price tag for local taxpayers, assuming senior governments come through, is estimated at $548 million. That’s for a single plant to serve the whole region.

The bill for the most expensive option — seven separate plants — is $866 million, which translates into several hundred extra dollars in annual property taxes per household.

So let’s suppose the consultation process goes forward, and produces support for one of the more costly options. Keeping in mind that only a small sliver of the population is likely to participate — are we then committed to that?

Moreover, the funding deadline, while immediate, is the lesser of two hurdles that must be cleared. Federal regulations stipulate the new wastewater plant must be up and running by 2020. At the current rate of progress it’s hard, if not impossible, to see how this can be done.

Ottawa’s order, imposed in 2012, gave municipalities eight years to conform. Half that time has already elapsed and we are still going in circles.

This week, Jensen published an opinion piece in the Times Colonist, suggesting that if Langford and Colwood opt out, the CRD should reinstate a smaller version of the McLoughlin Point proposal. Esquimalt’s agreement would not be required, because a scaled-back plant could be accommodated within existing bylaws.

That would certainly lead to rancour, although as the CRD already owns the land, it is by far the most straightforward course. It is also the cheapest.

What has become clear, as the funding deadline approaches, is that the pressure of multiple options has become a divisive force. It provides fertile ground for disputes when the time for reflection is over.

If Jensen’s proposal is too muscular, then let some other simplifying solution be adopted. As things stand, the perfect has become the enemy of the good.

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