Thanks to a Canadian initiative at the 1992 Earth Summit, the world celebrates Oceans Day on June 8. Unfortunately, our oceans haven’t done so well lately, putting a little damper on the party.
We’ve overfished and under protected them, polluted them and ignored the undeniable impacts of climate change. We’ve treated beaches as opportunities for high-rise housing developments, carelessly disregarding the ensuing stress on shorelines and marine life.
Oceans are warming and acidifying, causing disruption to marine life and habitats. Corral reefs are bleaching. Sea birds are dying off. The polar ice caps are melting.
The B.C. Liberal government shamelessly promotes the oil and gas industry, urging more oil tankers into the Salish Sea where the inevitable accident will cause catastrophic damage.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to grow. It already stretches from the North America West Coast to Japan, in two giant swirls called the Western Garbage Patch and the Eastern Garbage Patch, and known as the Pacific trash vortex.
Currents in the Pacific Ocean round up more garbage every day. Most of it is non-biodegradable plastic that has broken down into tiny pieces.
Facial scrubs intended to exfoliate dead skin, and toothpaste intended to whiten teeth, and other personal care products, contain plastic microbeads. They’re little bits of plastic so small that the filters in most wastewater treatment plants don’t catch them.
Just one tube of facial scrub may contain up to 300,000 microbeads.
When they reach streams, lakes and oceans, these beads absorb other pollutants, and are consumed by fish and shellfish. Like plastic bags, they persist in the water and in sediment for more years than we can imagine.
When marine life consumes these microbeads it affects the food chain all the way up to you and me.
But even if we all stopped using products that contain plastic microbeads today – and even if we never used another plastic grocery bag – our rivers, lakes and oceans will suffer from these persistent pollutants for a millennium or more.
And speaking of wastewater treatment plants … While Victoria area elected officials argue, the region continues to flush untreated sewage into the Juan De Fuca Strait. The citizens of Comox and Courtenay pump their poop — only slightly better treated with decades-old technology — into the Strait of Georgia.
But the existing CVRD treatment plant does not screen out pharmaceuticals, or remove nitrogen and other toxic chemicals to any significant degree.
Are you thoroughly depressed yet? Calm down, because there is a little bit of good news.
Fewer people now deny the reality of climate change, save Drumpf supporters in the U.S. and too many Liberal Party supporters in B.C. A new generation of people, including engineers and scientists, who have grown up with the impacts of accelerated global warming, will affect positive change.
They are glimmers of movement toward shoreline protections and restoration along the B.C. coast. Groups like Project Watershed in the Comox Valley, for example, take unilateral action and press governments for sensible solutions.
But when, we wonder, will humans acquire the wisdom to figure out the long-term consequences of our consumption of everything from fossil fuels to toothpaste before — instead of after — they cause such damage?
Something to ponder on Oceans Day.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently said that “governments can grant permits, but only the community can grant permissions.” It’s a message that has inspired Canadians, but one that has fallen on deaf ears at the Comox Valley Regional District.
Residents from all over the Valley have expressed concerns to the CVRD and the Sewage Commission about its proposals to construct new sewerage facilities and pipelines, especially within the K’omoks estuary or Baynes Sound.
A Comox Valley-wide coalition of 10 environmental groups, independent professionals and scientists, Project Watershed, the Croteau Beach neighborhood and other individuals have all asked, in various forms, for the CVRD to reconsider its plans.
What do they want? A new plan that redirects the flow of sewage through an all overland route to the CVRD’s treatment plant on Brent Road. They want all of the regional district’s sewer infrastructure out of the estuary.
The Estuary Working Group of Project Watershed, which represents the 10 environmental groups, has offered — more than once — to work with the regional district and commission toward a sustainable solution. The CVRD has rejected them.
Many now hope the South Sewer referendum on June 18 fails, because it will leave the door open to press the CVRD and Sewer Commission for an overland route that better protects the environment.
South Courtenay sewage could flow to the current Courtenay pump station #1 on the Dyke Road, and then directly across the former Farquharson Farms, to connect with lines at Guthrie Road area and flow by gravity to the treatment plant.
This would eliminate the use of most existing pipes in the estuary foreshore, and would not require any new ones. A relatively short section of pipe might remain from the K’omoks First Nation to the Courtenay #1 pump station.
This plan would also eliminate the need for the proposed new pump station on Beech Street, outside of Comox.
If Area A voters approve the South Sewer System referendum, there will be more sewage pipes in our marine environment, including the estuary, Baynes Sound and in front of the Willemar Bluffs. And that means more risk of environmental damage, especially given the predicted effects of climate change.
The worst part of the South Sewer System plan calls for miles of new pipe to run underwater from Royston, across the oyster-rich Baynes Sound, over the shifting sands of the Comox Bar, in front of the Willemar Bluffs and up through the foreshore where it will connect to the existing outfall pipe from the treatment plant on Brent Road.
From there, it will travel through the pipeline in the Point Holmes foreshore to the outfall, a section of pipe highly vulnerable to winter storms.
This plan doesn’t address the geomorphlology and hydrology of the miles of marine environment covered by the South Sewer System proposal.
It’s good that the CVRD will finally remove the pipe at the base of Willemar Bluffs. But it’s not enough. The Point Holmes beach pipe is just as vulnerable. And, as we argue in other articles on this page, the remaining pipes along with the proposed new pipes for HMCS Quadra and the south Courtenay area will continue to pose unnecessary risks.
It’s becoming obvious that a large and important sector of our community has not “granted permission” for the regional district’s plans. So, how has the CVRD responded to these voices?
The Sewer Commission has said, in so many words, “We’re not listening.”
At its most recent regular meeting, the commission refused to permit a delegation of concerned citizens to speak. The group had to submit questions in writing, and those questions still haven’t been answered.
It’s as if the commission is afraid of constituents who have differing perspectives.
In response to the most recent letter from Project Watershed’s Estuary Working Group that pleaded with the CVRD to involve them, and to reconsider its current sewerage plans, Sewer Commission chair Barbara Price returned a boilerplate response without addressing the merits of any of the letter’s questions and concerns.
It’s unacceptable for elected officials to callously dismiss the good intentions and genuine concerns of constituents.
What is it about honest civic engagement that scares the Sewer Commission? That they might have to compromise? That educated, professional citizens might have ideas that lead to a better plan?
Good leadership would invite diverse, informed community input to the table, not shoo it away. And that would lead to more sustainable, responsible solutions to our sewer problems.
Why should voters be wary of the CVRD and the Sewer Commission’s proposals on sewerage infrastructure projects?
Because there’s a history of bad decisions. How do we know they were bad? In some cases, because citizens have sued the regional district over the effect of those decisions. In other cases, the CVRD has created a legacy of unnecessary ongoing costs for taxpayers.
Here’s some history.
1960s Sewage lagoon
In the mid-1960s, the City of Courtenay treated its sewage in a lagoon near the Courtenay Airpark. Design flaws miscalculated how high the Courtenay River might rise. Eventually, it rose over the lagoon and flooded raw sewage into the K’omoks estuary.
1980s current system
Two decades later, in the mid-1980s, the city of Courtenay and the Town of Comox, with the CVRD, constructed the present day system.
They had several options at the time about where to place the sewer pipe that would move effluent from the Courtenay pump station #1 to the treatment plant at the end of Brent Road, near Point Holmes. Along the way it would pick up sewage from the K’omocks First Nation and Comox.
One option placed the force-main sewer pipe on a completely overland route. Instead, the CVRD choose to run the pipe almost exclusively through our marine environment — because it cost less — even though many citizens and groups advised against it.
Almost immediately after the pipeline was constructed, the erosion of the Willemar Bluffs began to accelerate. Property owners on top of the bluff, fearful for their homes, filed a class action lawsuit. The regional district denied responsibility for the increased erosion and fought the residents for years.
But eventually the court ruled against the CVRD, saying its actions caused the added erosion. But the regional district refused to accept the ruling. The residents complained to the B.C. Ombudsman, who also ruled against the CVRD.
Caught by the B.C. judicial system and the provincial ombudsman, the CVRD was ordered to fix the problem. Their solution to halt the erosion: spend nearly $1 million to place rip-rap (large rocks) at the base of the bluffs.
After the rip-rap slowed the bluffs’ erosion, the sand along Goose Spit began to disappear, eroding that shoreline. This is not a coincidence or an unrelated event.
The sand cliffs within the Strait of Georgia — Quadra Island, Savory Island, Willemar Bluffs, the Komas Bluff on Denman — were created by the glacial retreat some 22,000 years ago. They are all one oceanological feature, the Quadra Sands Formation, commonly referred to as feeder cliffs. They are always eroding.
Protecting Goose Spit from erosion
The Goose Spit is a sandbar created by shoreline drift, the natural erosion of the Willemar Bluffs, and it extends to Denman Island via what’s known as the Comox Bar. Once the Willemar Bluffs stopped feeding sand to Goose Spit, it began to wash away.
So now, the CVRD had to spend about $500,000 more to dig in large driftwood logs along the windward side of Goose Spit to protect it from diminishing. In addition to the capital cost, Valley taxpayers pay tens of thousands of dollars annually — probably forever — to reinforce and maintain these protections of Goose Spit Park.
But after the construction of the sewer pipe and placement of rip-rap below the Willemar Bluffs, other beaches began to erode.
Homeowners to the north of the bluffs began to lose shoreline, too, and parts of their front yards in some cases. So residents installed rip-rap, at their own expense, to save their property.
And that moved the accelerated erosion action further up the shoreline. Parts of the popular tourist beach at Point Holmes started to wash away. Every year, large chunks of land disappear with the winter storms.
To fix that problem, the Town of Comox will spend another $1.6 million to add rip-rap from where the homeowners stopped to the Point Holmes boat launch.
There’s a pattern to all this, and it looks like one continuous chain reaction from the initial routing of a sewer pipe along the Willemar Bluffs. A routing people advised was wrong, but a warning the CVRD ignored.
The result has already cost Valley taxpayers millions of dollars, and thousands in ongoing annual maintenance expense.
But, wait, there’s more.
Based on experience, it’s probable the Point Holmes rip-rap project will shift erosion further up the beach, and may even accelerate the erosion of the bluffs at the end of the CFB Comox runway, which stand near the sewer outfall into the Strait of Georgia.
It’s also possible that increased winter storms will eventually threaten the sewer pipe buried beneath the Point Holmes beach from the treatment plant to the outfall, and that this pipe will also have to be abandoned.
2011 Sewerage Master Plan
An engineering firm in a early 2000s report recommended the CVRD abandon the pipe on the beach below the Willemar Bluffs. The report said the pipe had been exposed and was vulnerable to winter storms.
This is the same pipe that should have been placed overland, the pipe that caused accelerated erosion of the bluffs and the diminishing of Goose Spit. Still, the CVRD did not act until it adopted a Sewerage Master Plan in 2011.
Unfortunately, that plan only addresses the Willemar Bluffs section of sewer pipe. It doesn’t address pipe on the beach along Point Holmes to the outfall, which is equally vulnerable to winter storms. It does not address the pipe along Comox Bay or in the K’omoks estuary. It doesn’t deal with shoreline erosion and the loss of private property, and the continuing costs of fixing the next problem created by resolving the last one.
The plan has led to the South Sewer System referendum on June 18 that will add miles of new sewer pipe into Baynes Sound and the estuary. A proposal that the Project Watershed Estuary Working Group opposes.
Nor is the CVRD sewage commission following its plan. They have not engaged a coastal engineering specialist to determine the remaining life of the Willemar Bluffs pipe. It did not update its plan in 2014. It has not started an initiative to incorporate resource recovery — reclaimed water, energy reuse — into the master plan. It has not created a governance structure for areas outside of the existing mandate for the City of Courtenay and Town of Comox.
Old technology at the treatment plant
The CVRD also failed to equip the Brent Road treatment plant with the necessary technology to reduce odors to the degree required in a residential neighborhood. Angry nearby homeowners sued the CVRD and won.
As a result of the lawsuit, trucks now haul sewage solids multiple times every day from the Point Holmes area to Cumberland for composting. It could and should have been an odorless, carbon neutral operation.
The CVRD sewer commission proposes to spend millions of dollars more on projects that will lock the sewerage system into existing and new infrastructure in our estuary and other marine environments for years to come.
And taxpayers will bear the burden again when changing weather patterns inevitably force the CVRD to do what it’s refusing to do today: Go to an all overland route, as proposed by Project Watershed.
Your enjoyment of our waterfront
One of the joys of living in the Comox Valley often touted in tourism promotions is the pleasure of swimming off beaches around Baynes Sound, including Comox Bay, off the end of Goose Spit, or from the beach at Point Holmes.
Besides swimmers, people paddle kayaks and SUP boards. Youngsters often take unexpected dips into the bay while learning to sail, or tubing behind a boat.
But imagine how even a small leak of raw sewage from the kilometers of pipe that run along our estuary and pristine shorelines could spoil that fun, and foul the Valley’s reputation. Putting raw sewage pipes in our waterfront creates the risk that some people could get ill from unacceptable levels of bacteria, such as e. Coli.
Maybe that risk is small, but it exists. And it’s unnecessary because the Comox Valley Regional District could move most of its sewer pipes inland, and out of our waterfront.
The Dyke Road
This main arterial route connecting Courtenay, the K’omoks First Nation and Comox was named accurately. The road is a dyke. It separates low-lying land, the former Farquharson Farms, from a river and a tidal estuary.
Winter storms make dykes susceptible to breaching. Just watch and read the news, because it happens almost every day in the southeastern U.S.
It could happen here. Imagine a 5.4 metre high tide. Add 1.1 metre for a storm surge (reasonable, based on data from the Campbell River monitoring station), 0.4 metre for sea level rise (conservative) and 0.2 metre for an extreme wind factor. That adds up to 7.1 metres, or just over 23 feet of water.
Just a few feet of water combined with a strong storm floods the Dyke Road. Twenty-three feet would cause an emergency.
Besides property damage, and threats to human and animal life, such a storm could unleash a tragic flow of raw sewage into the estuary, and then it would spread down Baynes Sound and throughout Comox Bay.
Roads have been breached
A winter storm earlier this year flooded the roads at Goose Spit, Point Holmes and on the Dyke. Rising waters and wind flung logs onto the roads, prohibiting safe passage in places until highway crews could clean them.
The sewage commission has so far ignored the predicted effects of climate change in its Sewer Master Plan and the impact that more intense and severe winter storms will have on our shorelines. Shouldn’t we consider these inevitable changes before we spend millions of dollars to put more critical assets at risk?
Neighboring cities, such as Campbell River, are already making plans to remove sewer infrastructure from their foreshore based on this emerging data.
We will have another earthquake
In 1946, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake rocked the Comox Valley. Portions of the Dyke Road were completely destroyed, and made impassable.
When the next quake occurs here, it’s almost certain that the main sewer line that runs along Dyke Road, through the estuary and into Comox Bay will be twisted enough to break, crack and spring a leak. Raw sewage will foul our waters right down into Baynes Sound.
Sewer pipes placed inland could also break, but we could more easily contain the leaked effluent on land, and that would minimize the environmental damage.
Engineers can design safe systems, but that doesn’t preclude the unexpected from occurring.
The Courtenay #1 pump station has an electric alarm system to alert city staff when trouble occurs; when the pumps stop working, for example.
But that didn’t help recently, when rats chewed through the wires and disabled the alarm system, according to the operator of a septic pumping service. The rats also chewed wires that shut down the pumps. Before it was discovered, sewage had backed up in the pipelines.
That incident ended without serious consequences. But it’s proof that every system or piece of infrastructure can malfunction. Doesn’t it make more sense to place sewer pipes inland, and reduce the potential for damage?
British Columbia, a province usually anxious to tax anything within its reach, has curiously kept its hands off of a large source of potential revenue: marijuana.
While Washington state, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska inhale multi-millions of dollars of tax revenue by regulating the production, distribution and retail sale of marijuana for medical and recreation use, British Columbia lets this windfall slip away.
British Columbia could help shape the federal legislation expected next year by putting a regulatory system in place now, and jumpstart its revenue stream.
This wouldn’t take as long or be as difficult as it might seem. Our neighbors to the south in Washington state have an excellent model for a system that could be more or less copied and pasted into B.C. law.
Washington state collected $67.5 million in 2015, its first full year of operation. This year, it expects to collect $154.6 million. The state’s Office of Financial Management predicts a whopping $1 billion of new revenue over the next four years.
Imagine if B.C. injected that much new money — taken away, in part, from gangs and outlaw drug dealers — into early childhood education, better access to services for people suffering from mental illness and support for affordable housing projects.
And a windfall revenue isn’t the only benefit of a fully regulated system.
Right now, marijuana growers and sellers are running loose in the province. It’s a wild west environment. Nobody can verify who’s growing the pot sold in stores, who they are selling it to or what’s in it.
From Sidney to Vancouver to Toronto, marijuana retail stores are popping up as fast as the RCMP can raid them. The Liberal government says it’s committed to legalization, but while it dithers over the details of national legislation, the market is spinning out of control.
Instead of rushing into a national marijuana legalization program, the federal government should look the other way while British Columbia develops a regulated market that includes rules pertaining to DUI, banking, public consumption and retail store locations. A smaller provincial experiment can expose weaknesses and oversights and enact quicker corrections.
Those real life test results can lead to a better-written federal law.
For example, let’s not go down the road of simple legalization. Without provincial control over who’s growing and selling marijuana, gangs and Mexican cartels will continue to siphon off money that could be used to improve the quality of life in British Columbia.
Smoking pot outside the old Lorne Hotel, circa 1975
We must merge the recreational and medical markets. Let’s shake off the nudge-nudge, wink-wink reality of medical marijuana. Yes, it’s been a help for people with certain medical conditions, but it’s also been a false front for people who just want to get high.
In Washington state, it was estimated that 90 percent of cannabis sold for ostensibly medical purposes was, in fact, consumed recreationally. Interestingly, the medical market ballooned in 2011 when naturopathic physicians were added to the list of providers who could write pot prescriptions.
A regulated system should include a patient registry to differentiate bona fide medicinal users, who could qualify for tax exemptions, from recreational users.
If there is sufficient legitimate demand for the low-hallucinogenic, high-analgesic cannabis preferred by medical users, retail stores will provide it. And medical users would have the option of growing their own.
The province will also need to use some of the new tax revenue to fund substance abuse awareness programs, primarily aimed at children. Of course, parents must play an important role in educating their children about marijuana, and that includes keeping any edibles at home securely out of their reach. Colorado experienced a surge of hospital visits by children who accidentally ate pot-laced treats.
Marijuana legalization advocates have successfully argued that smoking marijuana poses no greater threat to society than drinking alcohol, and that prohibition will not work. Both are true. Like alcohol, marijuana is not risk-free, which argues for a government-regulated system of production, distribution and retail sales.
The federal government has recognized the historical transformation of social values during the early years of the 21st century. Whenever communal morals shift so significantly, governments must eventually conform their laws to reflect the public’s will.
British Columbia could and should generate millions of dollars in revenue and lead the nation in clearing up the current tangled mess of conflicting laws and regulations.