In its current rush to patch its sewerage system, the Comox Valley Regional District has stumbled toward yet another unwise decision that could negatively impact our community’s coastlines.

It’s not well known, but a 55-year-old sewer pipe runs beneath Comox Bay, to move sewage from HCMS Quadra to the Comox pump station, located at Jane Place. The pipe is actually the old Comox outfall, which was repurposed for HCMS Quadra in the mid-1980s when the new treatment plant and outfall were constructed at Point Holmes.

There’s a risk this pipe could leak effluent into the bay.

To mitigate that danger, CVRD engineers proposed a new pipe across a shorter stretch of the bay where it would connect with a new large pump station in the Croteau Beach area. But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said, not so fast.

Before the DFO would approve a new pipe, they asked the CVRD to conduct comprehensive environmental studies to determine the impact of construction on fish habitat and coastal vegetation, such as eel grass.

Rather than take the time to do these studies, the CVRD and the Department of National Defence have chosen to repeat the regional district’s 1980s mistake of placing sewer pipes along the foreshore of our recovering estuary. They plan to build a new pipeline — paid for by the DND — and bury it on the estuary’s foreshore, along Goose Spit road.

This is a mistake for several reasons.

First, pipelines are not 100 percent infallible. Even new pipelines can leak. Putting critical infrastructure on or near the marine foreshore creates the potential for pollution to foul coastlines, or an estuary.

The K’omoks estuary has just begun recovering from acid rock drainage that scorched the once bountiful Tsolum River into a dead river, barren of aquatic life. The Mt. Washington Copper Mining Co. only operated for a couple of years in the mid-1960s, but it left decades of toxins and heavy metals leaching into the Tsolum River’s tributaries, down the river and eventually polluting the K’omoks estuary.

Thanks to the Tsolum River Restoration Society and the the K’omoks First Nation, the river and the estuary have started to recover. The K’omoks have worked hard to establish a successful shellfish harvesting enterprise, partly in Comox Bay, shipping more than 2 million oysters annually worldwide.
The plan to put a new sewer pipe in Comox Bay poses a threat to the K’omoks shellfish harvesting.

Second, pipeline construction in the foreshore in several sections will disrupt coastal vegetation and possibly also fish habitat. But the CVRD doesn’t know for sure, because it has not done any environmental studies of the new sewer pipe route.

Third, the CVRD has not taken into account the impacts on Goose Spit from climate change, sea level rise and the increasing frequency and intensity of winter storms. Sea levels could rise so swiftly within the next 20-30 years that Goose Spit road might become treacherous to navigate, or even impassable.

A recent climate change study led by a retired NASA climate scientist focused on a period about 120,000 years ago when the Earth last warmed naturally, to average temperatures estimated at only slightly higher than today. During that period, sea levels rose by up to 30 feet. The study, published recently in the European journal, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, predicts today’s warming will occur more rapidly, within decades.

But a sea level rise of just a few feet, combined with more frequent and severe winter storms, will have a devastating impact on Goose Spit. Higher sea levels could wash the road out completely.

This past winter, several storms sent waves crashing across the Spit road, washing up large logs and a sea lion, and weakening the Spit’s protections. The damage required repairs.

Before building new infrastructure in a marine environment, the DND and CFB Comox must consider the future of HCMS Quarda in light of how the effects of climate change might reshape the Goose Spit shoreline.

The Comox Valley Regional District should also think about these long-term possibilities.

At the April sewage commission meeting, Courtenay councilor Erik Erikksson asked why the DND couldn’t build a self-contained, small treatment plant at HMCS Quarda, eliminating the need for a new pipe. CVRD senior Engineer Marc Rutten responded, “We haven’t investigated” that option, and that he had “no good answer.”

It’s unacceptable that the CVRD hasn’t taken the time to examine every possible option. How can elected officials make good decisions when all the information isn’t on the table?

A decade ago, the CVRD recognized that its sewer pipe on the beach below Willemar Bluffs was vulnerable to winter storms. But it has yet to follow through on its own Sewer Master Plan recommendation to engage a coastal engineer to determine the remaining safe life of the pipeline. Yet, it’s now in an inexplicable hurry to make multi-million dollar changes to its sewerage system, without complete due diligence or exploration of all options.

This tunnel vision has resulted in planning inconsistencies. For example, the CVRD has focussed on the Willemar Bluff section of pipe, but has not yet discussed an equally vulnerable section of sewer pipe from the treatment plant, along the popular Point Homes beach enroute to the outfall into the Strait of Georgia.

At its May sewer commission meeting, the CVRD offered no explanation why replacing the Willemar Bluff section was any more urgent than replacing the Point Holmes section.

Voters and taxpayers in the Comox Valley should call on the CVRD to step back, take a breath and make room for a more environmentally secure plan to evolve, one based on new and emerging scientific data.

Other communities have built leading-edge wastewater management systems that recover and reuse resources, such as reclaimed water and energy to heat and operate treatment plants. Some cities, such as Campbell River, have taken serious notice of how climate change will reshape shorelines and made the wise decision to remove critical infrastructure from the foreshore.

The Comox Valley deserves that kind of thoughtful, calm leadership.

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