A pivotal moment

By Leslie Campbell, March 2014

Moves by Esquimalt and Colwood around the sewage treatment plan will make March a great month for political theatre.

Last month I told you about a forum at which Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Andrew Weaver and others urged the CRD to at least ask for an extension of the time frame demanded by upper levels of government to finalize the region’s sewage treatment plans. Unfortunately, while a motion to that effect had been made by Victoria City councillor and CRD director Marianne Alto, it was voted down by the majority of the CRD board in mid February.

Not a good sign. That vote will just add to the growing cynicism and distrust of local residents. The CRD seems intent on damaging its own credibility. Some sort of demonstration by the board that it is hearing the dismay and discord it has generated is needed—a sign that it is open to modifying its plans in light of new information, reason, and community concern.

It’s worth noting here that the debate has shifted. While there are still some—including highly credentialled marine scientists—who claim the present “primary” sewage treatment poses no environmental problems for the ocean, most of us have accepted the need to deal with our sewage in a different way. The main division now is between the CRD, with its “secondary” sewage treatment plan, and citizens who think a more effective, innovative “tertiary” treatment should be embraced, one that would end up being less costly over time, partly due to revenues from heat and water recovery. 

The CRD has two upcoming opportunities to rebuild our trust, by showing they are not wilfully blind to new data and good ideas.

These two opportunities—or challenges—come in the form of Esquimalt’s possible refusal to rezone McLoughlin Point as the CRD’s wastewater treatment site; and Colwood’s request to exit the CRD plan and do its own tertiary treatment. If the CRD denies both municipalities’ choices, the trauma to the region could be severe. Certainly, denying autonomous cities their right to serve their own citizens could prove the undoing of some political careers in this election year. Yet acquiescing, particularly to Esquimalt’s refusal to rezone, will be seen as highly risky as well. 

Judging by the first night of two public hearings in February, it is by no means assured that Esquimalt’s council will have the confidence or heart to rezone the McLoughlin Point site. Speaker after well-informed speaker weighed in on the irrationality of turning a significant chunk of the harbour’s shoreline into a wastewater facility—without first seeing the design—or even knowing the route the pipeline to Hartland will take. They dismissed the $13-million worth of “amenities” offered by the CRD as “mitigation” that should be paid for anyway. A number spoke on the risk of tsunamis, presenting slides and arguing that the only study done was very narrow in scope and did not address climate change or sea level rise. Most commented on how the facility had far too large a footprint for the small 4-acre site. Virtually all begged for more time to find a better solution, utilizing less invasive up-to-date technologies. One speaker noted that CRD directors are obviously so tired, they are settling for a third-rate plan—which another labelled the “McLoughlin Point Monument to Sewage Madness.” Speakers received applause from the 400-strong audience despite being requested not to clap. 

Given that McLoughlin Point is the main plant site, the whole project is at risk if rezoning isn’t successful. The CRD can appeal to the province to appoint an arbitrator. But that may be seen as an outrageous abuse of power over a democratically elected council. It will also trigger delays that will jeopardize the CRD’s plan. So Esquimalt’s decision, expected in March, could serve as a dramatic turning point.

But the Colwood bid to go it alone is also a pivotal moment, for it doesn’t just provide a stumbling block on the path forward, it provides something many citizens warm to: an inspiring alternative plan. Together they could reroute the path forward.

 

On February 12 the City of Colwood officially asked the CRD to support an amendment to the CRD Core Area Liquid Waste Management Plan that will allow for the construction of a resource recovery and sewage treatment facility in Colwood. The documentation presented to CRD directors states: “Colwood is planning for a facility that will treat water to near potable standard and eliminate the need for ocean discharge.” Instead it would use recycled water for “toilet flushing, irrigation and other low public contact uses, reducing the need for potable water by up to 40 percent in buildings…Recycled heat from the treatment process will be provided to buildings through a district energy sharing system in Colwood’s business core. This will reduce energy requirements by up to 60 percent in buildings that use it. Particular targets are the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre and Royal Roads University.” 

The facility, Colwood predicts, will be up, running and selling recovered resources by 2016—a good two years before the CRD’s main plant will be in operation. The proposed location is under the municipally-owned parking lot at the transit exchange near the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre.

The plan, which will be discussed and voted on at the CRD on March 12, makes sense both for Colwood and the region. As Colwood Mayor Carol Hamilton has noted, this proposal benefits Colwood taxpayers by ensuring that they only pay for capacity that city needs now. Only 25 percent of Colwood homes are currently on sewers, so many Colwood residents have voiced opposition to paying for a service they will never use. Councillor Judith Cullington, who chairs their transportation and public infrastructure committee, stated, “The City of Colwood has received advice from many experienced experts both locally and internationally and is confident that we can provide sewage treatment to our citizens at a lower net cost than the current CRD plan will, both in the short term and in the long term.” 

But Colwood also argues that their plan benefits taxpayers in other municipalities. As explained on the Colwood website: “The current CRD plan anticipates the need for an additional facility to be built on the Westshore as the main plant nears capacity in 2030, to cope with regional growth. Colwood’s plan would create a plant in the Westshore now, using a small-scale, modular design that would allow for additional modules to be ‘plugged in’ as the community grows. This would relieve the rest of the region of paying for the cost of the proposed future Westshore plant. It would also extend the life of the main plant by freeing up Colwood’s capacity for other municipalities.”

Colwood will pay all costs and revenues associated with the finance, design, construction, operation, maintenance and future upgrading of its treatment plant—and is not seeking any part of the grants promised to the CRD by the provincial or federal governments nor any financial assistance from the CRD. Since Colwood’s share of the current core area plan is only about four percent of the total, it argues, its proposal would cause “only minimal financial impact to other municipalities.”

Noting that the Province has consistently asked for demonstrations of innovation as one of its funding conditions, the background paper notes: “The Colwood approach will provide the opportunity to demonstrate additional innovation within the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Plan at no cost or risk to the CRD.” 

Reading through this document and the motion itself, it’s hard to fathom how CRD directors could rationalize voting against the motion (though stranger things have been known to happen there). 

Councillor Cullington told Focus: “The proposal has many advantages for the other members of the plan and the rest of the region, and so we are hopeful of a supportive outcome.” If the CRD accepts Colwood’s plan, it will still go through public consultation and need Ministry of Environment approval. 

A rejection of Colwood’s bid by the CRD will be seen by many as mean spirited and irrational, a decision based on fear that one municipality might actually be able to prove it has a better solution. With political careers riding on the outcome, watch for some interesting political theatre in the weeks ahead.

 

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Colwood’s type of plan will work, both environmentally and economically. The Sewage Treatment Action Group is led by Richard Atwell, who, when it comes to the history and issues of sewage treatment in the Victoria region, seems to possess encyclopedic knowledge (aided by an ipad full of documents and schematics). STAG has been researching  solutions internationally and holding public forums presenting their RITE plan—a plan involving distributed sites offering tertiary disinfected level treatment of water, with a price tag in the neighbourhood of $350 million compared to the CRD’s $783-million plan.

Land economist Chris Corps, a member of STAG and one of the authors of the 2008 Provincial study on integrated resource management, says he priced Colwood’s plan using technologies like Zeeweed membranes (used at Dockside Green—and in Edmonton, Singapore and over 800 other cities), and puts the cost at roughly $8 million. Colwood’s share of the CRD plan is about $36 million in capital cost (minus grants), but Judith Cullington notes, the “current [Liquid Waste Management Plan] requires a future Westshore plant in the 2030s which will add probably another $12 million to the Colwood share and likely without grant support.”

Under STAG’s plan for the whole CRD, wastewater would flow to about 12-15 small tertiary treatment plants. Small means small—and virtually invisible. They believe that many of the current pumping stations could be converted to treatment plants, and that the rest could be housed on municipality-owned land, largely underground. These would use state-of-the-art membrane filter technology, producing near potable water which could be sold or used for irrigation, toilets, etc. The sludge that’s left would be further dewatered in another small machine, resulting in an odourless semi-dry material. Corps estimates (worst case), one to three daily truck visits to each site to pick up sludge and transport it to one of two relatively compact state-of-the-art gasifiers—ideally one behind the Legislature and the other at Uptown. There, the resultant heat energy could be easily used—producing revenue. There is virtually no residue in such a process—unlike the CRD’s plan, which still hasn’t found or included in its costs a disposal method for the biosolids left after anaerobic digestion (a $38-million incinerator has been proposed). There is also no need for the huge biodigester out at Hartland—or the 18-kilometre pipeline.

When a full business case is done, where annual revenues are taken into account, as are operating and maintenance costs over 50 years, along with the initial capital costs, Corps and Atwell say that such a system would certainly cost far less than the CRD’s. 

Unfortunately, comparing well-defined apples to apples is impossible. For one thing, the CRD has not done a full 50-year analysis of its plan. Corps also condemns it for its unusually high 7.5 percent “discount rate,” which ends up discounting the cost far too much as time moves on. He says it should be no higher than five or six percent. Corps says even using the CRD’s 25-year analysis and high discount rate, “the actual life cycle cost is in effect $2.4 billion—not $783 million. Now by the time you add in the other 25 years which were omitted from the business case, it’s $2.7 billion. If you normalize some of those components it’s more like $3.2 billion. But we don’t really know...”

Another advantage of the RITE plan approach is that it is more adaptable to reality. CRD growth projections have been known to be wrong. In fact there is a misconception that most of the growth is happening in the western communities; it’s now occurring in the core. If we do as Colwood seems intent on doing, creating just the amount of treatment that is necessary now, we could reduce costs significantly. If, for instance, it saved $100 million off the current plan, it would be a huge bonus: There are things other than sewage that need our community’s attention and dollars.

 

Whenever A DISTRIBUTED TERTIARY model is proposed, CRD politicians and engineering staff are quick to dismiss it. In the first “fact” presented on a “Facts & Myth” sheet handed out by Seaterra, the commission charged with implementing the CRD’s plan, states the rationale for the dismissal: “The CRD completed a comprehensive analysis of a decentralized approach to wastewater treatment in 2008-2009. Three options for tertiary treatment were explored with 4, 7 and 11 treatment plants. Each option was examined to develop detailed capital and operating costs and potential revenues…The 11-treatment plant option resulted in capital costs of approximately $2 billion with annual operating costs at $33 million, both over 225 percent more than the current plan.”

It has been difficult until recently to verify this because the CRD hadn’t produced these studies. With the help of a Freedom of Information request filed by Atwell, a 69-page discussion paper (based on a much larger document) came to light recently. What it appears to show is that the options the CRD examined and costed back in 2008-09, bear little or no resemblance to STAG’s ideas. In fact it does not even mention the word “tertiary.” Instead, virtually all the plants, in all three options, appear to offer only secondary treatment. While there is some suggestion that some of the treated effluent will be able to be used for irrigation and toilets, most of it—and this can be seen in the maps supplied in CRD documents—must be shipped via expensive pipelines and outfalls to the sea from the various plants.

As Atwell notes, “The engineers preferred outfalls to tertiary disinfected treatment and never costed the latter. With disinfection they would have opened the door to changes in design.” With proper tertiary disinfection, he continues, “Savings start with $106 million in marine outfalls you don’t need and there’s a big chunk of the $87 million in conveyancing you reduce…If we are talking Zeeweed, just one of many membranes out there, the cost has come down by half [since 2008].” He also noted that space requirements and population were overestimated (648,000 by 2065).

Said Atwell, “All of these factors completely upset the cost of what was proposed to the  CRD in 2009, which wasn’t an integrated resource management approach to begin with. They started with sites they didn’t own and that didn’t make sense, like Ogden Point, because they were dependent on marine outfalls.”

Seaterra’s “Myth & Facts” sheet also fails to mention the annual revenues for the plan. Because these 2009 distributed-system plans include a full life cycle analysis (4 percent discount rate) for each of the three options and because there are annual revenues, it’s not clear that they wouldn’t actually cost less over their 50-year lives. That’s because the CRD has not done that for its McLoughlin plan. 

 

In 2009, community surveys showed that the public rated the environmental impact of the sewage treatment system as more important than the cost of the system. Somehow the politicians didn’t get the message. But the irony now is that the most environmentally-friendly solution is also likely the most economic one. It is also the quickest to get up and running: Besides the simpler, modular technology, the nature of a tertiary distributed model means finding the suitable small parcels of land is comparatively easy, relying on municipally-owned properties and avoiding expensive pipelines to the sea.

Colwood seems to get all this. Its request represents an important chance for the whole community to gather more information on what works. It, along with Esquimalt’s possible refusal to rezone McLoughlin Point, presents the CRD with two opportunities to show it is not so hell-bent on finalizing a sewage treatment plan that it ignores the evidence and desires of the public it serves.

Editor Leslie Campbell is looking forward to moving on from this topic as well. Email her at leslie.focus(at)shaw.ca.