As the Comox Valley closes in on selecting a new overland route for conveying Courtenay and Comox wastewater to the treatment plant in Cape Lazo, and potentially upgrading the level of treatment it receives there, elected officials are also considering a first step toward using existing infrastructure for a more inclusive community-wide sewerage system.
The Comox Valley Regional District is currently in the final stages of developing a new, long-term Liquid Waste Management Plan (LWMP) for the existing infrastructure that will provide important ecological and financial benefits.
But at present that infrastructure only serves a portion of the Comox Valley.
Despite its misnomer, the Comox Valley Sewage Commission that governs the Comox Valley Water Pollution Control Centre — commonly known as the Brent Road treatment plant — and the infrastructure to convey it there, only serves households in Courtenay, Comox, K’omoks First Nation and CFB Comox.
It is not a Valley-wide service.
Approximately a third of Comox Valley households rely on private, individual septic systems, which vary in age and effectiveness.
Over the next several decades, Union Bay Estates plans to develop nearly 3,000 new homes in a project already underway
In fast-growing areas, such as Union Bay — one of four designated settlement nodes in the Regional Growth Strategy — and Royston, areas where sewage and other wastewater is currently handled by septic systems, there is a compelling need to provide better and more reliable wastewater treatment.
Many of these private septic systems are old and some are failing. Homeowners can spend $30,000 or more to replace a poor system, so it’s often put off as long as possible.
But systems that are not functioning properly have the potential to pollute. Previous CVRD studies have shown that failing septic systems in Royston and Union Bay have contributed to fecal coliform contamination of Baynes Sound.
But now a new plan to be led by Darry Monteith, the CVRD’s Manager of Liquid Waste Planning in its Engineering Services branch, would shut down those private septic systems over time by connecting households to the existing Courtenay-Comox infrastructure.
The possibility of this new approach was made possible when Courtenay and Comox sewage commissioners reversed historical thinking to entertain the possibility of opening their closed-system to other areas of the Comox Valley.
Many, including Electoral Area A Director Daniel Arbour, see the decision as a historical moment.
“This is a significant milestone for the sewage commission and the Regional Growth Strategy,” Arbour told Decafnation. “It’s a big step toward a Comox Valley-wide solution. Moving from septic systems to a community system feels momentous.”
Arbour said the important aspect of the decision is that the framework is now in place for connecting the Royston and Union Bay area to the sewerage system “so that if grants are available and the cost per household is reasonable, this proposal has a chance to be successful.”
Sewage commission Chair David Frisch, a Courtenay City councillor, told Decafnation that this new approach would be “a step toward Valley-wide collaboration in local government, an opportunity for Area A residents to benefit from sewer collection and treatment, a way to ensure sewer doesn’t leach into Baynes Sound and a partnership with KFN to support reconciliation and First Nation Rights.”
WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT
Since at least 2006, Island Health has consistently recommended a community sewerage system for the Royston-Union Bay area due to poor septic system performance and the number of complaints received.
A 2015 study by Payne Engineering Geology conducted after a dry winter found that up to 50 percent of the areas’ septic systems were failing, particularly in the Union Bay community. And the study suggested the rate would be higher during wet winter months.
By comparison, an earlier study by the same engineers found zero failures of private systems in the Cape Lazo area.
The large reservoir tank at the new Union Bay-Langley Lake water treatment plant on Mcleod Road that will improve access to drinking water and enable future developments.
The Payne study identified six main reasons that septic systems were failing:
1) small lots, many less than 2000 square metres;
2) a shallow winter water table, shallower than 45 cm (18 inches) in some areas;
3) inappropriate designs including, in some cases, drain field trenches set deeper than the water table;
4) undersized septic tanks and drain fields;
5) lack of maintenance; and,
6) ageing systems in need of repair or upgrade (some systems are about 50 years old).
Over the last 18 years, the CVRD has put forward three previous proposals to resolve these problems. All of them have failed over financial issues. And all of them would have created new infrastructure exclusive to the South Courtenay area, essentially creating two independent sewerage systems in the Comox Valley.
In 2002, residents rejected a plan they deemed too costly. In 2006, residents passed a referendum to construct a new system, but that initiative collapsed when necessary grant funding didn’t come through. In 2016, residents again rejected a South Sewer Project proposal because it was too expensive.
HOW CHANGE OCCURRED
It took three failed attempts, but the reality finally became clear: a stand-alone system for CVRD’s most southern communities was neither feasible or viable. New thinking was needed.
In early 2018, the South Sewer Select Committee, comprising electoral area A and C directors and K’omoks First Nation representation, pressed the sewage commission to analyze the possibility of receiving and treating wastewater from the Union Bay and Royston areas into their existing system. Former Electoral A Director Bruce Jolliffe brought the request forward.
In April of 2018, the commission, apparently warm to the idea, asked staff to study the impact that this new approach would have on their system.
New Area A Director Daniel Arbour (elected in October 2018 to replace Jolliffe, who retired) told Decafnation that serious behind-the-scenes discussions on this approach got underway in mid-2019.
Over the next six months, elected officials and KFN representatives talked through topics that ranged from what expenses Area A residents would pay to how K’omoks First Nation and Union Bay Estates would be engaged.
In February of 2020, the CVRD engineering staff reported back to the sewage commission with its analysis.
The report showed that the impact of adding wastewater from Union Bay and Royston would have minimal impact on existing infrastructure over the next decade.
That analysis concluded adding wastewater flows from the southern areas of the regional district would initially add only about three percent to four percent more wastewater flowing through the system and an estimated 10 percent to 12 percent more when Union Bay Estates and potential K’omoks First Nation developments in the southern area get fully underway.
The report also showed that the addition of wastewater flows from Area A would reduce the financial burden on all participants.
Arbour said everyone at the table could envision some benefit for their constituents.
He said Courtenay and Comox saw financial benefits. KFN saw the potential to connect any development they pursued on properties they own in the area. And Union Bay Estates, which plans nearly 3,000 new homes in the area, saw that the new sewer proposal could reduce their cost of future development.
On Feb. 11 the sewage commission passed a motion in-camera that stated, among other things, that the commission was open to receiving and treating the southern area’s wastewater if it proved feasible. The minutes of this meeting have since been made public.
AN IDEA PREVIOUSLY REJECTED
Connecting households in other areas to the existing Courtenay-Comox system is not a new idea. It has been proposed before.
In fact, it was on the table prior to the unsuccessful 2016 South Sewer Project proposal but was eliminated from consideration early. At the time, the elected officials who govern their closed system weren’t interested in the southern area issues. CFB Comox has one seat on the commission, Courtenay has three and Comox has three.
That meant the only option in 2016 was to once again propose some version of stand-alone wastewater treatment for the Royston-Union Bay area. But concerns about a sewer outfall into the oyster-growing waters of Baynes Sounds necessitated a long and expensive pipe crossing the Estuary and Comox sand bar to reach the Brent Road treatment plant.
That pushed costs beyond the reach of most residents. And it was one of the factors that caused the Village of Cumberland to pull out of the South Sewer Project and pursue plans to upgrade its own existing wastewater system, which is currently underway.
IS THE NEW PLAN AFFORDABLE?
It is not yet known how much this new approach will cost, nor how much each homeowner would have to pay to connect.
Over the summer, CVRD staff will gather financial data, explore the feasibility of grants and plan a public consultation process that might occur in the fall.
Director Arbour says whether the CVRD and KFN can obtain federal and provincial infrastructure grants will be key to making the proposal viable. And to that end, he’s thankful that everyone has managed to see a long-term benefit.
A sign pointing up Mcleod Road in Union Bay
He says the price will have to be less than the 2016 proposal, which pegged an individual homeowner’s cost from $25,000 and up, which was as much or more than the cost of installing a new private septic system.
“Whatever it comes in at, it has to make financial sense to individual residents. What is the public appetite and what value do they see for their money?” Arbour said. “It has to be affordable. That will ultimately define success.”
Arbour says he won’t over-promote the idea. If the numbers aren’t well below the last proposal for a stand-alone treatment plant, then he could let the idea sit for now.
“But the framework will still be in place to connect Area A households, which resolves environmental issues and addresses future development issues in this fast-growing part of the Comox Valley,” Arbour said.
From a strictly optimistic perspective and if significant grants were solidified in the next 12 months, Arbour believes the project could begin in a year or two.
Arbour praised K’omoks First Nation leadership during the discussions about the plan.
KFN already owns land in the area and could potentially own significant parcels in the former Sage Hills development area depending on the ongoing treaty negotiations with the provincial government.
Including more of the Comox Valley in the Courtenay-Comox wastewater system raises other issues, such as how the function will be governed.
The commission has historically been composed of only Courtenay and Comox elected officials because the system primarily serves them. KFN has been a customer without representation on the commission. CFB Comox is also a customer but has a seat on the commission due to some early investment by the Department of National Defence.
Accepting southern area wastewater — the cost of which would be paid by residents — would likely entail voting representation for the Electoral Area A director and KFN.
KFN was offered a non-voting seat on the board last fall. At the same time, following a staff report on governance, the Electoral Area B director was offered a non-voting seat at the commission table when dealing with issues affecting Area B residents.
And another issue for the proposal is how to best acquire public approval.
Sewage commissioners could choose to have staff write a new Liquid Waste Management Plan, a task that could delay construction for two years or more. Or it could proceed through an Electoral Assent Process, such as a public referendum that could take place early in 2021.
The Electoral Services Commission, comprising directors from areas A, B and C, will decide which public approval process to follow.
If the CVRD proceeds via an Electoral Assent Process and it is successful, construction could begin in 2022 and complete in 2023.