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.
During the latest Comox Official Community Plan process hundreds of Valley residents made it abundantly clear they wanted Point Holmes maintained as it was: large, single family lots and plenty of green space. To their credit, most of the Comox Town Council agreed and the plan was adopted.
But that may now be threatened.
Ever wonder how Comox town boundaries developed in such an odd fashion out here? Back in the day, Kye Bay, then in the Comox Strathcona Regional District, had a real problem with their water and septic systems. Annexation by Comox solved those problems but others saw that as an opportunity to do something the RD zoning bylaws had not permitted.
Between Claddagh Estates on the bluffs at Cape Lazo and the property south of the Lazo Campground there are some quite large properties. Claddagh was in the planning stages, and both the Campground and another property were slated to be multi-story condo complexes. A number of smaller properties were also being considered for multi-home development. But zoning under RD rules did not permit that.
Owners of these properties then applied to Comox for annexation. They claimed they too had water and septic problems. Problem was, a septic study clearly showed septic systems were not a problem, so they doubled down on the water issue.
But many of those who complained of inadequate or tainted water had very shallow wells. Experts felt strongly, digging deeper wells was the solution. Most who did had excellent water.
Annexation became a divisive issue but the proposed area had a bare majority of people who wanted it. Had Simon Crescent, Wireless Road, even properties on the north side of Lazo as it leaves the oceanfront been included, the referendum would have failed. But it was craftily managed and it passed. That’s why the Town boundaries out there are so crazy.
A cynic would say it was never about water or sewer, it was always about development.
Fortunately, at this time, Comox was developing its Official Community Plan. Two very different visions evolved. The developers saw Point Holmes with hundreds of new “doors”.
But in meeting after meeting, the vast majority of Valley people said they valued Point Holmes as it was: large single family lots with plenty of green spaces. That vision prevailed in the OCP.
It didn’t take long for the Claddagh Estate developers and others to apply for variances. Only Claddagh was successful. They were allowed to develop several slightly smaller lots in return for opening up their gated community and dedicating land to parkland. Many of us thought that was a good trade.
Forward to today. Once again the Claddagh Estates developers are looking for a variance to permit subdivision into smaller lots. I won’t go into how some of those who built homes there feel betrayed by this and are concerned the value of their homes will decline. That fight is theirs. But I am concerned for other reasons.
This new variance application threatens the OCP. If approved, the owners of several other large lots in the Cape Lazo area could also apply to subdivide. Once that variance is in place, it will be difficult for Council to deny other variances.
Developers will chop up Cape Lazo against every intention of the community plan.
I’m also concerned about traffic on Lazo Road. It is unsafe now. There are no shoulders on the road for the many cyclists, walkers and joggers that use it every day. In fact, there is barely enough room for cars.
Problem is, there’s no hope of widening the road. First Nations consider the foot of the hill going up to Kye Bay a burial ground and the whole area of cultural significance. When the road was widened a number of skeletons were unearthed. Another skull was found recently. With the new walking path in place along the water, traffic could be a nightmare. The Claddagh variance will only make that worse.
Comox Council will consider this variance soon. If you share my concerns and want to see Point Holmes remain the gem that it now is, send a message to the mayor and council and attend that meeting. This little change could have very big consequences.
The noon-hour talk radio show host on CFAX 1070, Pamela McColl, invited me on her show last week to talk about a recent article of mine, “NIMBY is not a 4-letter word,” that appeared on the editorial pages of the Times-Colonist newspaper.
(I also published the article on this website — subscribe today!)
The key point of the article is that the people closest to something are usually the first to examine it, ask questions about it and for whom it has the most meaning. This enquiry, born out of self-interest, often leads to important policy debates throughout a broader community.
During the interview, McColl asked what had inspired this idea.
I recalled that it was my father, a small-town Minnesota newspaperman, who taught me the concept of news. It was the early 1960s. I was a freshman in high school and eager to write for the school newspaper.
For something to be newsworthy, he told me, it had to have what he called “proximity,” which he defined in both geographic and personal terms.
“If it happens here,” he said, “it’s news. If it happens in Iowa, it’s not.” That’s geographic. But he added, “If it happens in Iowa to somebody from here, it’s still news.” That’s personal.
I gained experiential knowledge of my father’s wisdom as time went on. Like most people, I never gave too much thought to tragedies in other parts of the state. When somebody’s ice fishing house fell through the ice up north, I thought it was funny. Wintertime car accidents on Minnesota’s icy two-way roads didn’t bother me much.
But when a family of four from our small town all died in a head-on collision with a semi-trailer truck somewhere near North Dakota, I felt the impact. We lived in a town of less than 1,000 people, and everybody knew everybody. The oldest daughter in that family had been my babysitter.
I’ve come to understand that the notion of “proximity” plays a critical role in how each of us understands and relates to the world. Proximity also influences ideology.
Or, how the building of a potentially stinky and noisy pump station in a rural residential neighborhood might affect those residents’ enjoyment of their homes.
It’s the underlying concept at work when an elected official opposes same-sex marriage, until one of his own children announces he or she is gay. Then they change their position. Former vice president Dick Cheney had this revelation many years ago when he learned his daughter was lesbian, making him aware of her struggle for sexual identity and how federal policies affected her.
I suspect the Comox Valley parents of a transgender child feel more strongly about the national debate over whether to allow people to use public bathrooms of the sex with which they most identify.
Parents who lost children and other loved ones in mass shootings at La Loche, Sask., Newton, Conn. or Colorado may or may not have changed their minds about specific gun control proposals or schools’ mental illness awareness policies. But their thinking is undoubtedly more complex and emotionally rooted now.
Without my father’s idea of proximity, it’s easy not to care about some other guy who got cancer, or the child shot at school, whose life never got started, or the LGBTQ people who just want a normal life.
Or, how the building of a potentially stinky and noisey pump station in a rural residential neighborhood might affect those residents’ enjoyment of their homes.
Without a personal stake, we’re mostly immune to the tragedy and hardships endured by others. It’s a natural defense mechanism, because it’s simply too overwhelming to assume everyone else’s burdens.
But as compassionate human beings we must try. We must listen to these voices.
My father had a terrific insight when he observed that people are most moved by events that impact them personally.
But I can’t help thinking of a world where all people naturally sought to see how the world looks from behind the other person’s eyes. Imagine a world where everyone attempted to understand each other, and where we all accepted those differences without feeling threatened or the need to “fix” the other person.