Many residents of Royston and Union Bay will vote tomorrow on whether to fund a new sewerage system to service their communities. This seemingly isolated decision will have a profound and long-term impact on the entire Comox Valley.

If voters approve this referendum, known as the South Sewer Project (SSP), they will create the Valley’s third separate sewerage system. The other two are the Courtenay-Comox system, also managed through the Comox Valley Regional District, and the system serving the Village of Cumberland.

On its website, the CVRD lists a fourth sewerage system for the Saratoga-Miracle Beach as a future initiative. In 2006, however, voters rejected the CVRD’s proposal for a wastewater management system for that area.

If the SSP moves ahead, it will lay more pipe in our estuaries and Baynes Sound, and commit the Valley to an uncoordinated sewerage system, perhaps forever. It will make it more difficult to achieve the ideal solution: a state-of-the-art Comox Valley-wide, all-overland sewerage system.

Of course, such an achievement would require Comox Valley jurisdictions to work together for the greater good. While that may not seem likely at the moment, it’s possible.

When the 13 municipalities and three electoral areas that comprise the Capital Regional District couldn’t agree on where to locate its new sewage treatment plant, Peter Fassbender, the minister for Community, Sport and Cultural Development, stepped in and formed a panel of experts to make the decision.

It’s not likely Fassbender would take a similar directive action here, but a nudge in the right direction could help.

Some people believe that such a major Valley-wide initiative could only happen if the municipalities amalgamate. Without allegiances to any individual community, a single governing body could focus on the entire Comox Valley.

But amalgamation presents a set of obstacles no less onerous than a Valley-wide sewerage system.

In the meantime, many failing septic systems in the Union Bay-Royston and Saratoga-Miracle Beach areas trickle untreated liquid waste into our waterways, and the Cumberland system adversely affects the Trent River watershed. The Courtenay-Comox system runs raw sewage through old pipes buried along the K’omoks estuary foreshore and pumps lightly treated wastewater into the Strait of Georgia.

So there’s an immediate benefit, albeit small, to approving the SSP. That plant would at least employ some of the modern technologies for sewage treatment. Its effluent would reach reclaimed water status, but would not be cleaned of pharmaceuticals or nitrates.

But does that advantage warrant spending tens of millions of dollars, putting miles of new pipe in our sensitive marine environment and most likely delaying the ultimate sewerage solution for many more decades?

Whatever voters decide tomorrow will have long-term consequences for all of us.

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