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Lisa Helps: There’s no time to waste on wastewater plan

Environment Minister Mary Polak has spoken on the sewage issue, again. While there may be various interpretations of certain elements of her letter to the Capital Regional District, four things are clear.

Environment Minister Mary Polak has spoken on the sewage issue, again. While there may be various interpretations of certain elements of her letter to the Capital Regional District, four things are clear.

First, the provincial contribution to the project is fixed; her government is fiscally responsible and this is already a large project.

Second, the deadline for Greater Victoria municipalities to treat their sewage is fixed. The letter doesn’t say clearly whether she means the 2018 provincial deadline or the 2020 federal deadline. A letter back to the minister requesting the provincial and federal funding deadlines be synched at 2020 would be a good step forward.

Third, the provincial government will not intervene to overrule local zoning. Thus, a site or sites must be acceptable to the host municipality.

Finally, if municipalities want to work together or act separately on sewage treatment, they must do so with the permission of and under the direction of the CRD.

Indeed, the purpose of the minister’s letter is “to provide initial guidance on the regulatory steps necessary should the Capital Regional District or its member municipalities pursue a treatment option(s) other than those reflected in the current Core Area Liquid Waste Management Plan.”

Money is fixed, time is ticking and the Seaterra scheme is stalled without either a site or provincial approvals. How to move forward from here?

Langford, Colwood, Esquimalt and the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations are coming together to find a way forward for their citizens. That will take a herculean effort, a willingness to be open and collaborative, to work closely with the minister and the CRD and to move quickly.

Victoria has begun to explore the possibility of creating a separate system. Maybe it’s time for Victoria to consider teaming up with Saanich and Oak Bay, working collaboratively to find a sub-regional solution for the three east-side municipalities.

Here are some fears, some facts and some real opportunities to move forward:

There is a fear that residents risk tax increases and that an alternative multi-plant system with a higher standard of treatment is more expensive and the technology is unproven.

The last time that the CRD looked at any alternative was in 2009. Now, there are more than 150 smaller-scale, higher-standard plants operating in North America.

Preliminary cost estimates for this kind of system peg it at under $500 million, about $250 million less than the Seaterra estimate.

A multi-plant system, achieving higher standards, can:

• Save money in up-front capital costs;

• Include waste-to-energy components for better environmental and economic benefits; if municipalities became utility regulators, they could earn a 3-4 per cent revenue benefit;

• Reclaim and reuse water. CRD residents pay $30 million to $40 million each year for the water they flush into the sewage system; then they will pay again to take the sewage out. Instead of putting the treated water into the ocean, it should be reclaimed and recycled.

There’s also a fear that NIMBY concerns rule out multiple smaller sites — no one wants a sewage treatment plant in their backyard. But there are many ways of accommodating smaller-scale plants with other land uses.

And with different technology, there is no noxious smell.

With smaller plants and more options for locating them, there are more ways to collaborate to get the best overall size and design. In Victoria, a below-ground plant could be considered as part of a new Crystal Pool or fire hall redevelopment, with waste heat used for heating the building.

But what we also need is rigorous financial research and study to make sure that we make decisions that are economically viable, as well as values-based.

Clearly, there’s an opportunity for municipalities to work individually or in small groups to create innovative, world-class projects that will conform to regulatory requirements and meet the needs of citizens and the environment, now and for the future. This will take political will and collaborative leadership.


Lisa Helps is a Victoria city councillor.

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