Governance of Regional Sewage Treatment

The following opinion article appeared May 9, 2014 in the Times-Colonist.  At that time I still hoped the Province would approve use of McLoughlin Point for a regional sewage treatment plant.  The new council will of course work to keep costs as low as possible, and I hope we will be able to work with other municipalities, but I still fear that the new system will be more costly than the system the CRD had hoped to achieve.

The impasse over sewage treatment has some people asking whether our region can continue to be governed by multiple municipalities and a weak regional government. If the test for a local government is that can carry out a legal requirement imposed, under pain of fines, by provincial and federal regulators, then our regional government system is in danger of failing.

By now it must be clear to everyone that there will never be unanimous agreement on a sewage treatment system for Victoria. Many argue that ocean disposal is satisfactory and treatment is unnecessary, while others feel the system should go well beyond that required by regulations. Some think a decentralized system with multiple plants would be cheaper than the current plan. As specific sites for facilities are identified neighbours invariably express concerns.

Despite differences of view, the CRD Board has made a decision. After years of study our staff and consultants have produced a plan that economically meets regulatory requirements, takes advantage of provincial and federal financial aid, and as much as possible limits impacts on the neighborhoods that will host sites. A 2009 engineering study showed that a single central plant for wastewater treatment is the cheapest approach. Unless regulators allow Victoria to dump its sewage in the ocean indefinitely, we will never have a more affordable option.

The problem now is that the CRD board cannot make zoning changes over municipal objections. Esquimalt’s unwillingness to rezone a site has effectively blocked the plan, unless the Provincial government overrides the Esquimalt zoning. Any other cost-effective site is virtually certain to produce a similar stalemate. No desirable alternatives remain to the CRD, but returning the responsibility for sewage treatment to the municipal governments, requiring each to build its own plant(s) and find its own outfall(s), will dramatically increase taxpayer costs.

The obvious political solution to the impasse is amalgamation of the core area. Making a decision would be no easier, but councillors of the new Greater Victoria would have the power to make a decision and their responsibility would be clear.

Alternatively, the Province could mandate a stronger regional government. Elsewhere, regional facilities are often provided by regional or county governments made up of directly elected members, not municipal councillors. Differences of view between the region and the municipalities are routine and expected, and the powers of each level to carry out its responsibilities are clearly defined.

The B.C. model, with councillors/directors filling dual roles, has often worked well. The CRD has successfully provided parks, water, wastewater collection and a landfill. Yet many wish for a stronger regional voice in land use and transportation planning, and often directors are torn between local and regional interests, as in 2010 when the board abandoned midway the process of providing a kitchen scraps collection and processing system (oddly, some blame the CRD for the problems of this program, when instead it would more accurate to blame the unwillingness of municipal directors to entrust control of the program to the CRD).

There are differences of view about the appropriate role of regional government, but it seems hard to dispute that where it has responsibility it also needs authority. If the present project fails for lack of a site, it will be not because of an unwillingness of the board to make hard decisions but because it does not have the powers it needs to carry out the tasks it has been given.



Seaterra, the independent commission established to deliver the program as a requirement of the Province, was enormously successful at the technical level. Not only did the project show every indication of being delivered on time and on budget, but the level of treatment to be offered greatly exceeded that required by regulation, meeting many of the goals of tertiary treatment. Sadly, at the public hearing neither myself nor the public was aware that the plant would be providing a standard of treatment including advanced oxidation that matched or exceeded that provided by many tertiary plants in respect of the substances of greatest danger to the environment. Nor was the design of the plant available to the public. Our challenge moving forward will be to maintain the cost saving advantages of the work that has been done, given the need to find alternate sites.

Some Further Reading The best single source for information about how we arrived at our current situation with regard to this issue can be found on the Seaterra website.  See, in particular, https://www.crd.bc.ca/docs/default-source/seaterra-pdf/program-facilities-information/wwt_crdtimlinenarrative_20141017.pdf?sfvrsn=2  

The most common complaint I hear about wastewater treatment is that it is not needed.  The following article suggests very strongly to me that while the ocean is big, governments cannot ignore what is being dumped there, and even higher levels of treatment will be required in the future.

Drinking water contaminated by excreted drugs a growing concern

Researchers finding excreted drugs in drinking water

By Kelly Crowe, CBC News Posted: Sep 22, 2014 5:00 AM ET Last Updated: Sep 22, 2014 10:23 PM ET http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/drinking-water-contaminated-by-excreted-drugs-a-growing-concern-1.2772289