When elected officials and the community they represent achieve a certain level of synchronicity, good governance and good outcomes usually result.
So a reasonable person might expect that after voters strongly rejected a Comox Valley Regional District sewerage system proposal for the Royston/Union Bay area that CVRD directors and staff might start paying closer attention to the mood of its constituents.
But not the Comox Valley Sewage Commission.
At its July meeting, the commission received more than 700 petitions from people opposed to building a second sewage pumping station at Beech Street, in the Croteau Beach neighborhood. Surely, such a large showing of public opinion deserved some attention.
But when Area B Director Rod Nicol, who is not part of the commission (see below), presented the petitions, there was a deafening silence. No discussion. No questions about why so many people from all over the Comox Valley object to the CVRD’s plan. No attempt to understand what so many petitions might mean in a larger context.
Only Courtenay Director Erik Eriksson seemed to get the message.
Eriksson suggested the petitions represented wide community concern about more than a single pump station on Beech Street. And then he ticked off a long list of those possible other concerns.
There’s limited capacity at the existing sewage treatment plant on Brent Road. There’s concern that sewage pipes in the foreshore of the K’omoks Estuary present a growing danger to a sensitive environment.
The Courtenay #1 pump station needs an upgrade. Project Watershed wants to restore the Field Sawmill site. Cumberland has opted out of CVRD sewerage plans. Voters failed the South Sewer Project referendum, as did Miracle Beach/Saratoga voters previously.
What’s needed, Eriksson said, is for the regional district to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new overall plan that encompasses the whole Comox Valley and that takes citizen and environmental concerns seriously. That’s what people want.
Amen to that. It’s an approach this website supports and has continually promoted.
Missing Eriksson’s point, Commission Chair Barbara Price, of Comox, said they already had a Sewage Master Plan (SMP). Kris La Rose, of the CVRD’s engineering staff, added that the regional district was following the SMP.
Except that they aren’t.
Major Trevor Fenton, the CFB Comox representative on the commission, asked why the staff hadn’t engaged a coastal engineering specialist to determine the remaining life of the raw sewage pipe running along the beach below Willemar Bluffs as recommended in the SMP five years ago.
It’s an important point because if the pipe doesn’t present any imminent danger for the next 5-10 years, then there’s no urgency to abandon that section of pipe and, therefore, no need for a new pump station on Beech Street.
There would be, in other words, enough time to develop a better plan, as Director Eriksson suggested.
La Rose answered that an assessment of the pipe’s condition is technically challenging because it operates continuously. And it would be expensive.
But does it make any sense to spend millions on a patchwork plan to replace a section of pipe that may be in good working condition? Shouldn’t that fact be determined first?
The sewage commission can’t have it both ways. They say they have a plan, but they don’t follow the plan. They haven’t conducted a plan review every three years or created a governance structure for areas outside of the existing mandate and other recommendations in the plan.
These inconsistencies suggest some unspoken purpose for wanting to build a second Comox pump station, despite such strong public opinion against it.
Earlier in the meeting, La Rose gave an overview of a recent open house on the Comox #2 pump station. It was a pleasant depiction that overlooked that most of the people who attended were opposed and that competing displays were set up outside the open house where opponents were busy gathering more signed petitions.
And when Area B Director Rod Nichol asked why the information from the sewage advisory group was missing from the open house, it was shrugged off as no big deal.
But it is a big deal, because the advisory group’s top recommendation was to upgrade the Courtenay #1 pump station now, eliminating any need for a second Comox pump. It’s a fact the sewage commission curiously ignores.
The CVRD Sewage Commission doesn’t have a good track record. It’s marred by mistakes, lawsuits and failure in the court of public opinion. So it’s time to do as Director Eriksson suggests: step back and develop a new plan in sync with the community.
Editor’s note: The Comox Valley Regional District Sewer Commission is a misnomer. The system of sewer pipes, pump stations and single treatment plant managed by the commission serves primarily the City of Courtenay and the Town of Comox, who own the system. HCMS Quadra ties into the system as does the K’omoks First Nation.
But residents of rural areas, A, B and C are not served and have no seat on the commission. Neither does the Town of Cumberland, which manages its own sewerage system.
When Royston and Union Bay voters overwhelmingly rejected the South Sewer Project on Saturday, they added their voices to a broadening concern about the Comox Valley Regional District’s sewerage strategy.
Consider: Some years ago, residents of the Saratoga-Miracle Beach area rejected a CVRD proposal for a system to replace private septic systems. The Village of Cumberland recently opted out of CVRD sewer planning. The SSP referendum went down, hard.
Also, a coalition of 10 Valley environmental groups, a group of affected residents and hundreds of individuals are pressing the CVRD sewage commission to halt plans for an unnecessary pump station on Beech Street. A large number of those folks turned out to a CVRD open house this week to express that view, and nearly a thousand people have signed their petition.
Such widespread resistance should mean something to the CVRD and the sewage commission.
So how will the CVRD respond, and where do we go from here?
Right now, people have lost confidence in the CVRD over sewerage. It’s credibility has been sullied by a history of bad decisions, citizen lawsuits and secretive negotiations — and by an approach that’s out of step with the response of other communities to a changing climate.
The South Sewer Project (SSP) failed for a number of reasons, but the result makes it clear that Valley voters don’t want a patchwork of sewerage systems.
Perhaps the decisive 79% (no) to 29% (yes) rejection of the SSP will jar the CVRD and its sewage commission into some fresh thinking. The failed referendum at least presses the pause button, and creates space for a new strategy to emerge.
That new strategy should encompass the entire Comox Valley. It should include the ideas of people outside the hunkered down CVRD office. It should not exclude people, or force infrastructure on neighborhoods that won’t benefit. It should be collaborative, transparent and inclusive.
It should be driven by a vision that the Valley can lead the province in sustainable wastewater management.
If the CVRD does that, it can win community support for a Valley-wide, state-of-the-art, all-overland sewerage system.
Of course, a single Comox Valley governing body could make this happen more quickly. Amalgamation could prevent a single region of the Valley — for example, the Town of Comox or Cumberland — from blocking solutions that benefit the greater Comox Valley. But that’s another topic.
For now, the CVRD has a new window of opportunity to accurately read the public mood and respond positivity.
A crowd of roughly 75 citizens peppered Comox Valley Regional District Senior Engineer Marc Rutten Jan. 17 with questions and angry statements at an open house about the HMCS Sewer Project.
At times the meeting threatened to spin out of control as residents shouted critical responses to Rutten’s remarks without being called on to speak.
A majority of the attendees appeared to reside in the Hawkins Road and Croteau Beach neighborhoods, where a new force main sewer pipe from the sea cadet facility on Goose Spit will wind through local roads enroute to connecting with Courtenay-Comox sewage pipes.
The route assumes the eventual construction of a new Comox #2 pump station to be built on a Beech Street lot, which is outside the Comox town boundary. If that pump station does not get built, then the Quadra pipe will have gone out of its way by a considerable distance, and at a much greater expense.
The Quadra route’s assumption of a new Comox pump station rankled many of those grilling Rutten during his presentation and follow-up question period. And that led to questions and critical statements about the Courtenay-Comox sewerage system, which is operated by the regional district.
Many residents argued that upgrading the Courtenay #1 pump station now, which has to be done in a few years anyway, would be cheaper in the long run.
“Why not take the longer view,” asked one resident.
Rutten tried to separate the two issues. He said that regardless of whether the Comox #2 pump station is built, the sewer pipe from Quadra would still need to be replaced.
Numerous residents responded by saying that was true, but the route of the pipe would be different, and it would not run through their neighborhood and close to many residents’ shallow wells.
They accused Rutten of being disingenuous and the Sewage Commission — made up of three Courtenay directors, three from Comox and a single CFB Comox representative — of bullying the neighborhood through a lack of communication and disrespect for their concerns.
The citizens also criticized Rutten for not considering other sewerage options for HMCS Quadra. Most of the year, fewer than 50 people work onsite. During peaks weeks of the summer, there can be nearly 1,000 cadets and staff, at the facility.
In response to a question about whether his engineering department considered other sewage treatment options, such as an onsite facility, Rutten said they did not.
He said there had been “no consideration of other options” than the one proposed.
The system designed by CVRD engineers will cost $1.78 million. Federal tax dollars will pay for the proposed system through the Department of National Defense budget.
But one of British Columbia’s most innovative designers of septic systems for residential and commercial properties, Jim Ripley of Turtle Tanks in Kelowna, has estimated the cost of a small bore sewer system for HMCS Quadra at around $250,000.
Ripley has not provided the CVRD with an official estimate nor did he have access to all of the HMCS Quadra data. He was roughly estimating the cost on numbers of users only at the request of Decafnation.
A small bore sewerage system would consist of a large septic tank and a small pump to move effluent through a small two-inch diameter pressure pipe into the Courtenay-Comox system. The small bore pipe could be slipped through the existing Quadra pipe, even though it is outdated for carrying wastewater directly.
Rutten called this option “not feasible,” but said he had no supporting data for his statement.
Small bore systems are used around the world, including Canada, to service entire villages. Ripley suggested a small bore system might also be applicable to connect Royston and Union Bay homeowners to the Courtenay-Comox system at a significantly lower cost.
Rutten started the meeting by explaining that HMCS Quadra sewage currently flows to the Comox Jane Place pump station via the town’s old outfall pipe. It was originally laid across Comox Bay in the mid-1960s and used to discharge the town’s sewage until the current Courtenay-Comox system became operational in 1985.
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.
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.
But 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.
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.