Down the drain

By Gene Miller, July/August 2013

Can Victorians afford—literally—to let the CRD build a sewage treatment facility that’s based on outmoded thinking?

1.

Oh, do not wake the sleeping tempests; beneath them Chaos stirs!” wrote the Russian Romantic-era poet Fyodor Tyutchev in Silentium.

You nailed it, tovarich.

Planet Earth hosts two great governing systems: climate and plate tectonics, however poetically disguised. We are careless interveners in the first, helpless bystanders in the second; but they connect frequently in our imaginations, long cultural narratives and literature. Installed in us—call it Hell and be done with it—is the certain intuition that some subterranean cataclysm-in-the-making has humanity’s name on it. Maybe our mineral skeleton (“I know it in my bones,” we say) transmits this sunken probability to our brains. It’s possible that this knowledge makes us fatalistic, and it may explain why the shrug is both expressive body language and code for “Whatever.” 

I wonder: Is majordomo Alfred thinking of global warming or the cauldron below, or both, when he says to Bruce (Batman) Wayne: “Some men just want to see the world burn?”

 

2.

“Think globally, act locally,” goes that quotable piece of environmental desiderata. Here in Victoria, the exemplar is Dockside Green in Victoria West which thinks globally, acts locally and has attracted attention from a sizeable world-wide community of green building advocates and urbanists. To balance the ledger, we sin globally by flushing our sewage into the wide ocean. “No more!” said the province a few years ago, deaf to grumpy local claims that the ocean does a good job of dispersing the human mess (“the ocean’s natural flushing action” has been the phrase-of-choice of the no-treatment crowd); and since then the CRD, charged with responsibility for coming up with a wastewater treatment plan, has been busy, uh, coming up with a wastewater treatment plan. 

In one of those exquisite and unplanned twists of counterpoise, Dockside Green’s unique approach to wastewater and the CRD’s emerging wastewater treatment plan expose a gorgeous ideological collision between fully conscious, world-nurturing ecological practice and business-as-usual (in which liquid waste is a bother, not a renewable; an expense, not a process); or, if you will, between the past that got us here and the future we need. Rather than plough directly into the heart of this story, I’d like to take you via the scenic route. 

On May 10th of this year (a date we may all have reason to remember) The New York Times published a news story entitled “Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears.” Monitoring equipment at Mauna Loa, Hawaii just recorded levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in excess of 400 parts per million. The Times piece notes:

The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.

“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that reported the new reading.

Ralph Keeling, who runs another monitoring program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said a continuing rise could be catastrophic. “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were tolerable thresholds,” he said.

 

3.

No doubt, you’re familiar with the Einstein aphorism, visible on just about everything except fortune cookie slips or embossed toilet paper: “We can’t solve today’s problems with the same thinking we used to create them,” often reduced to “We can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s ideas.” Wouldn’t it be even more revealing to say “We can’t solve today’s problems with today’s people?” 

We all dinosaur out. I can less understand or manage new technology every day. I don’t know what the hell the young people are talking about. More of my thinking seems fusty, brittle, dated. My parents went through the same thing. They found novelty harder and harder to mediate and less able to pivot, did what we all do: they dug in, shrunk their world and clung to what they knew—not just their habits and practices but values, too. 

We become our ruts.

Of course, things are jumping (just ask the weather scientists at Mauna Loa) and if the fizz of looming catastrophe is required to get us out of our ruts and provoke fresh thinking and innovation, reality clearly is up to the task. Right on time, global warming, extreme weather, changes to ocean ecology and other emerging signs of human-induced stress are raising essential questions about our engineering-driven approach to the human project. Now, suspect practices in energy sourcing and resource use, styles of consumption, and even the waste of waste itself, have lengthening moral shadows. 

 

4.

I had the opportunity to witness a remarkably speedy evolution within the short span of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences that I initiated in Victoria, Vancouver and Calgary between 2005 and 2011. I saw the audience morph from a cohort of horrified, helpless handwringers who felt they were staring at the abyss into empowered, ecologically informed practitioners—a promising marker, some of us thought, imagining that this new cadre would lose no time setting things right environmentally.

Oops.

I can recall former Premier Gordon Campbell rapt at a presentation by techno-futurist Stewart Brand (Whole Earth Catalog) at one of the Vancouver Gaining Ground conferences, as Brand laid out the case for seeding the cloud canopy using sulphate aerosols to counter global warming with global dimming.

Oops.

You could be excused for catching in this a whiff of Plan B resignation. “Resilience” and “adaptation” are the brave, new words in the policy lexicon, possibly because nobody’s yet willing to scream, “Head for the hills!” In a world now measuring 400 ppm of CO2, do you need a more tragic or ironic living image than Bill McKibben, heroic founder of 350.org? Just three short years ago I walked with him in Claremont, California. He was so hopeful. Now he must be wondering if he should bother pasting a 4 over the 3, or just wait for 5.

 

5.

In the real world, politicians are technical subject matter neophytes, heavily dependent on (and swayed by) the recommendations of their professional staff, and these engineering bureaucrats and their consultants are not proponents of audacious, disruptive thinking, but creatures of exigency and the status quo—pressure, that is, to come up with a workable response in a fixed time-frame. 

In fact, an overlooked part of the equation is that engineers’ errors and omissions liability itself makes the profession innovation-averse and dismissive of “starry-eyed” solutions…tomorrow’s thinking, in other words—a perfect prescription for yesterday’s tried-and-true, not tomorrow’s fix. Last word you’re ever going to hear from a municipal engineer: “Eureka!” Sorry, Einstein.

 

6.

When Dockside Green—the now world-famous LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) Platinum development across the Blue Bridge—was being undertaken in 2006, one of its bold environmental features was on-site wastewater treatment. If you’ve visited Dockside Green, those decorative ponds in front of the harbour-facing townhouses are the final ‘polishing’ stage of the wastewater treatment process.

To win CRD engineering approval and to opt out of regional wastewater fees, Dockside Green had to turn somersaults to prove that its on-site system was capable of treating wastewater to CRD standards.

Lest you imagine that Dockside Green’s achievements have been a cause for universal celebration, on August 14, 2012, fascinating correspondence passed from Patrick Lucey, senior aquatic ecologist and president of Victoria-based Aqua-Tex Scientific Consulting, to Jack Hull, core area director of the CRD Wastewater Treatment Program. Referring to a meeting with senior CRD staff, provincial ministry officials and others, Lucey notes to Hull: “You made a number of comments regarding the efficacy of the Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) at Dockside Green; in particular that the WWTP was non-compliant for extended periods of time vis-à-vis its Operating Certificate, resulting in poor plant performance. You further expressed the opinion that given the extended non-compliance periods of plant performance (months) this raised significant concerns within CRD staff regarding the use of decentralized WWTP as a potential design consideration for managing sewage within the Region.” [My italics.]

Lucey’s letter goes on to note that, in fact, there was a single day of non-compliance, for administrative, not performance, reasons. He adds that Dockside Green’s wastewater facility has met all water quality conditions as per the Operating Certificate. It has failed to be compliant with a condition requiring daily water quality testing only because the laboratory specified by the CRD itself in the Operating Certificate is closed on the weekends; but that Dockside Green has passed all water quality tests during its entire operating life (now about seven years) during weekday testing, and that it is reasonable to assume that weekend tests would have shown the same positive results. Why would it be so reflex for Hull to discredit rather than celebrate (and attempt to emulate) Dockside Green’s wastewater treatment accomplishments? 

 

7.

When Chris Corps talks, he plays all the voices. He’s a natural non-fiction storyteller. Corps, a land economist and valuation consultant, brings formidable forensic skills to spreadsheet analysis, and can turn “Total Stabilized Capital Cost Comparison” into a spellbinder. I haven’t met anyone better able to untangle and illuminate the idea that capital investment choices have ecological impacts and consequences for the energy future...in fact, the future at-large.

He has numerous questions about, and issues with, the proposed CRD wastewater treatment program, many of whose planning details and $782 million cost (Corps believes the true cost easily will be double that number) have become public lately as a result of the CRD’s clumsy and unpopular property acquisitions in Esquimalt. 

What jumps out in flashing neon from Corps’ math is that the current average annual Dockside Green costs per door for wastewater services are $362.71. The CRD states that with its new plan, regional per-door costs will be $309.86—more proof, you think cynically, that green costs more. But Corps points to a single fact: The CRD omits two-thirds of the cost—63.3 percent, exactly—on the quiet premise that this amount is being contributed by the province and the feds. Were regional taxpayers directly responsible for repaying true capital costs, they would quickly realize that the CRD wastewater system is $495 million—almost half a billion—more expensive than it appears, and that taxpayers would be paying $682.98 a door on a full-cost basis.

Corps summarizes the real math this way:

Chris Corps' math

Corps shows me a video of a miniature system at work, then World Bank policy and best practices, then an engineering textbook noting that the biological outputs are over 2,000 times better than the CRD’s proposed approach, and last a short video documenting change of practice in Sweden. First thing Sweden did was to fire the entire engineering department. As to the CRD, Corps finishes, “They don’t know how to do it, and they hate counting or saving money. Confuses them terribly.”

 

8.

Clive Hamilton, author of the recent Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, wrote an opinion piece entitled “Geoengineering: Our Last Hope, or a False Promise?” It ran in The New York Times on May 26, two weeks after the news from Mauna Loa. Hamilton observes:

Geoengineering—the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system to counter global warming or offset some of its effects—may enable humanity to mobilize its technological power to seize control of the planet’s climate system, and regulate it in perpetuity.

But is it wise to try to play God with the climate? For all its allure, a geoengineered Plan B may lead us into an impossible morass.

Engineering the climate is intuitively appealing to a powerful strand of Western technological thought that sees no ethical or other obstacle to total domination of nature.

In an emerging new condition of limits, everything’s become precious: arable land, potable water, fresh air, clean food. There’s a kind of wisdom just bubbling to the surface now, struggling to make itself broadly, publicly understood: that it’s not the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, but all the straws before it, too. Care to wager on the location and timing of the last flush?

Whatever.

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre and Monday Magazine, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.