Advance voting is underway for the June 18 referendum when Royston and Union Bay voters will decide whether to tax themselves to build and connect to a community wastewater system.

To clear up some of the misinformation about this Comox Valley Regional District sewerage initiative, Project Watershed Technical Director Dan Bowen and I had a meeting this week with Kris LaRose.

La Rose is the CVRD’s manager of liquid waste planning, and the project manager for the South Sewer Project (SSP).

The meeting immediately made one thing crystal clear: residents will not vote to approve a specific plan, such as where to locate the treatment plant or how to route the pipeline connecting the system to an outfall. La Rose said those details are not definitive. They have changed, and could change again.

This is a referendum about money. Do residents want to pay more than $2,000 a year for 30 years to build the system, and then another one-time expense ranging from $2,000 to $12,000 to connect to it? Or, by voting “no,” do they prefer to pay to upgrade their own septic systems?

The June 18 referendum cannot be interpreted as community approval of the plan. It will only reasonably conclude whether voters want to pay for constructing a system of indefinite design.

Bowen and I came away from the meeting with mixed feelings.

Project Watershed and other Valley environmentalists don’t want any new pipelines through the K’omoks estuary or Baynes Sound. And, we want existing pipelines removed, and rerouted through less risky overland routes.

South Pipe RouteBut Project Watershed also opposes the route proposed for the South Sewer Project’s pipeline that originates near the end of Marine Drive South.

Why? Because if voters pass the referendum, the pipeline would cut through the Trent River Estuary, an important wildlife habitat area. It will also pass through a salt marsh and across an area where the group has spent nearly $200,000 to sub-tidally reestablish eelgrass and other marine vegetation.

A better route for the pipeline, if there has to be one, would originate further south, avoiding the estuary and the new eelgrass beds. That would take a straighter and shorter line to the point where the pipe crosses the Comox sand bar — only 15 feet below the surface at low tide — enroute to connect with the outfall at the Brent Road treatment plant.

Once the proposed pipeline from the SSP reaches the treatment plant, it would bypass treatment, and join the existing three-kilometre outfall pipe that runs about a metre under the Point Holmes beach, until it turns offshore at the bottom of the bluff at the end of the CFB Comox runway.

La Rose said the CVRD would entertain a presentation from Project Watershed on revising the early part of the route, and that’s encouraging. The connection to the existing outfall at Brent Road is set in stone.

There’s been some confusion about the location of the existing outfall, perhaps because it’s wrongly mapped in the CVRD’s own 2011 Sewage Master Plan.

A map inserted into the SMP (between pages 10 and 11) incorrectly shows the outfall turning offshore in line with Southwind Road, far short of the boat launch and its actual location below the bluff and the airport.

Putting miles of new pipe in a sensitive marine environment doesn’t make sense, except that the safer overland route through the Courtenay pump station #1 comes with a higher price tag. But can we put a value on preserving the Valley’s natural assets?

On the other hand, La Rose said the wastewater from the proposed new SSP treatment plant would be cleaned to reclaimed water level, much higher than the degree of cleaning at the Brent Road treatment plant. But the SSP effluent would only amount to about 10 percent of the total flow through the combined outfall.

And, of course, none of this water will be reclaimed. The proposal is to pump it into the Strait of Georgia.

But even with the better treatment, the proposed new plant would not remove pharmaceuticals or nitrates. Studies show that it’s harmful to pour unnecessarily high levels of these chemicals into our oceans, which eventually make their way back to humans through the food chain.

That raises the question why the CVRD has not yet upgraded treatment levels at the Brent Road plant? It wasn’t leading technology in 1984, and it seriously lags the best treatment systems available today.

It’s also worrisome that the CVRD has not done detailed geomorphlology and hydrology studies about how the SSP high density poly pipeline will affect — or be affected — the Comox sand bar, which runs from Goose Spit to the islets at the tip of Denman Island.

Without these environmental studies, and definitive plant siting and pipeline routing, the results of the June 18 referendum cannot be interpreted as community approval of the plan. It will only reasonably conclude whether voters want to pay for constructing a system of indefinite design.

If the referendum passes, we hope the CVRD will engage residents and Project Watershed to collaborate on the final plan details.

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