The eastside-westside split

By Derry McDonell, February 2015 (Updated)

Will breaking into two groups create a consensus solution on sewage treatment? Or new unresolvable problems?

Last August Saanich councillor and CRD Director Vic Derman presented a motion calling for the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee, otherwise known as “the sewage committee,” to shift its focus away from a “one size fits all” approach. He advocated a best practices sounding of “individualized” solutions to sewage treatment. 

The motion failed to pass. The sewage committee remained wedded to the plan to put a single treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. 

Since then, however, the CRD’s failure to get the necessary zoning for McLoughlin—along with local elections in Greater Victoria— appear to have altered both the balance of votes at the sewage committee and the will to consider alternatives to the original plan. 

The first concrete step in that direction took place on January 7, when the sewage committee passed a revised version of Derman’s earlier motion with only one dissenting vote out of 15. 

The key difference? Derman called for the CRD to redirect its overall objective from dealing only with the regulatory requirements for wastewater management and target it instead on the goal of achieving a sustainable system that deals with climate change issues. Such a system would require tertiary treatment, eliminate all toxins in the biosolids, produce and utilize large volumes of gas from the biosolid treatment process, and recover and use the purified water as well. “How do we ensure the potentially massive infrastructure project maximizes our response to climate change?” Derman asked in the remarks that accompanied his motion. “How do we ensure that it maximizes resource recovery, and in the process of doing these things, how do we ensure that it maximizes environmental benefit and value for monies spent?” 

The passing of Derman’s motion was a considerable shift in the political stance of the sewage committee, charged as they are with finding a way out of the stalemate created by Esquimalt’s rejection of the necessary zoning for McLoughlin Point. 

Another positive step was the CRD’s acceptance of a new public engagement process, this one to be driven at the municipal level. This resulted in two coalitions being formed among the seven municipalities covered by the CRD plan. The first, now calling itself Westside Solutions, encompasses Langford, View Royal, Colwood and Esquimalt. The other, called the Eastside Select Committee, comprises Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay. 

These groups are charged with public education and engagement and recommending to the CRD potential solutions that demonstrate a political consensus and public support.

So far so good. On the other hand, however, what are the odds that a proposal can be reached that meets not only the regulatory requirements for regional sewage treatment, but also Derman’s climate change criteria, and satisfies the development needs and goals of all seven municipalities for the next 50 years—the projected lifespan of the new system?

Asked about this challenge, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps admits it won’t be easy. “It’s going to take a lot of work and I’m going to have to tell people who want me to help them with this, or help them with that, that sewage treatment is the main focus of this year in office. It just has to be that, and it should be for all of us.”

The potential stumbling blocks on this road are still serious. They include closing the current 3-6 month gap in the progress of the Westside and Eastside groups’ engagement process due to the latter’s delay in getting started. After that, solving the ongoing dispute over the cost/benefit discrepancy between the single plant solution proposed by the CRD and the distributed plant model proposed by opponents of the CRD plan needs solving, along with identifying potential sites throughout the region for one or more treatment facilities, depending on the preferred treatment method. 

As well, it will need to be determined if a single, region-wide system solution is possible, or if multiple solutions are necessary. If a single solution arises from the public engagement process, how can the twin engagement processes now underway be merged? And last but not least, a determination of which governing body has the responsibility and authority to implement and operate the preferred plan—the CRD or the affected municipalities—will need to be made.

 

LAND ECONOMIST CHRIS CORPS is very familiar with the history of the sewage treatment project in Victoria, having analyzed the original $1.2 billion CRD proposal—The Path Forward—on behalf of the Gordon Campbell government back in 2007. (See update at end of story.) Both then and now, he has maintained that the divisions that have plagued the project from the outset result mainly from using old approaches and technology that do the minimum to meet regulations, but now fall far short of what is possible both financially and environmentally. Secondly, he points to problems created by provincial statutes, which he says could conflict with one another.

On the first issue, he cites the fact that while the CRD received nearly 30 responses to its 2006 call for proposals on which technology to use, ultimately it ignored all of them. He notes that Derman tried to fix this and insist that staff comply with a sewage committee directive to include innovation, but that CRD staffer Tony Brcic refused. Instead, the CRD opted for what then-CAO Kelly Daniels called “the big pipe” solution, a technology for which then-CRD engineer Dwayne Kalynchuk was hired for his expertise.

On the second issue, Corps says that he asked two former BC Deputy Ministers of the Environment to confirm the CRD’s authority under the Environmental Management Act. They confirmed the Act specifies that the CRD—or any other regional district in the province—only has authority to plan waste management, and to approve variations. Implementation is not stipulated as their responsibility, which therefore rests at the municipal level. “Which makes sense,” says Corps, “because all of the other statutory authorities [involved] are administered at the municipal level as well.”

“If the municipalities decide to have someone else [implement] the plan for them, that’s their decision,” Corps says. “Through to 2010 the CRD was attempting to force municipalities to sign up with the CRD, allowing it to take control,” he says, a strategy that was reported to include some strong-arming of the municipalities, including threats to cut individual municipalities out of the shared funding agreement if they didn’t agree to assign their authority to the CRD. As proof Corps cites media articles quoting West Shore mayors being pressed to sign by a given date or be excluded. “The mayors were not happy, they took it as a pressure tactic that was completely inappropriate,” he says. “The situation was compounded by the Province pushing the communities back to CRD, which became an intolerable pressure for some. The Province did not ease the communities’ problem, which was created by provincial statute in the first place.” 

But assigning implementation authority does not and cannot remove the municipalities’ responsibility in other key areas affecting the project, including zoning, which the CRD learned to its peril in Esquimalt. There are a number of other relevant regulations under other provincial legislation that are solely under municipal jurisdiction as well.

Of course, having only one body to deal with suits the provincial government just fine, Corps notes, especially considering the number of councils involved here. But on the ground, the overlap and contradictory nature of many regulatory requirements remain thorny issues our local governments will have to work through, whether or not they agree on who should build and run the system.

Also needing resolution is the discrepancy between what the CRD says a distributed secondary treatment system would cost and the much lower price critics like Corps have suggested a distributed tertiary system would cost. Clarifying that issue received a setback when the City of Victoria hired engineering consultant firm Kerr Wood Leidal (KWL) last October to provide options for a go-it-alone treatment plan. It was KWL that produced the 2009 report that estimated a distributed secondary treatment model would be much more expensive than a central treatment plant. The CRD has cited that study ever since, even though it provided only secondary level treatment and therefore would have required nine costly new marine outfalls and abandonment of the two existing outfalls. Corps and others have offered withering criticisms of the report’s methodology and assumptions. 

But Helps says the City will most likely exit the current KWL contract. She also notes that the City’s Director of Engineering and Public Works Dwayne Kalynchuk, who oversaw the CRD’s original KWL study when he was at the CRD, “will have little to say in the subregional evaluation because it’s been taken out of the hands of Victoria staff and put into the hands of the Eastside Select Committee.” 

“It [the KWL hire in October] was a staff decision,” Helps explains. “I don’t think our city manager was aware of the hand KWL had in the original CRD proposal,” adding she also believes allowing it to proceed would violate the CRD policy of not hiring people who have been involved in an earlier stage of the same project. “We need to consider hiring the same consultant as the Westside group instead of having Victoria dragging its own consultant to the table,” she adds.

 

ANOTHER CHALLENGE ENROUTE TO SOLVING sewage treatment is that posed by existing infrastructure which does not respect municipal boundaries—specifically three major trunk sewer lines. As well, the percentage of the total volume of sewage received by those pipes from each municipality varies widely. This makes the political split into Westside and Eastside groups problematic. The Northwest Trunk line, for example, starts out in the Burnside-Wilkinson Road area of Saanich but crosses into Victoria West and continues through Esquimalt en route to Macaulay Point, where it meets the trunk line which serves all the Westshore communities. The volume carried by the northwest line and the west line together represents 47 percent of the total for the region. But 59 percent of the sewage volume being attributed to the Westside group originates in Saanich (45 percent) and Victoria West (14 percent), neither of which are included in the Westside Solutions’ jurisdiction, nor are they represented on the committee. 

“This is where true collaboration has to come into play,” says Victoria’s Helps, “because [while] there’s an Eastside and a Westside committee, the governance structure does not reflect the reality of the pipes underground. We could run into real trouble with that.”

Corps suggests the two groups could agree to include Victoria West as part of the Westside’s responsibility, but Saanich would be much more difficult. “So Saanich’s flow would have to be diverted to the east side. But if the Westside includes Saanich and/or Victoria’s flows, the Westside ends up building a plant that is way bigger,” he says, noting CRD’s latest data shows the Westside would have to build a plant one and a half times larger than CRD say the Westside needs. “That may prove nearly as unpopular as the McLoughlin plan. What [the committees] are dealing with are an east connector and a west connector. With a distributed system there are intervention points to interrupt the flow, treat it and recover the resources close to their source. If you did that, you wouldn’t have this downstream problem to deal with in the first place, which ironically is better for both community flexibility and developers.” Corps added: “For example, unless changed—and their scope expressly says they won’t—the Westside looks likely to increase costs for Langford developers and taxpayers by roughly double what it could be with an optimized distributed model.”

Another thorny political snare could pit Langford against Oak Bay, according to both Corps and Bryan Gilbert, a long-time critic of the CRD project. Both say that Langford is targeted to increase its sewer capacity far beyond its projected needs over the foreseeable future, while on the other side of the region, Oak Bay needs to refurbish or replace many kilometres of old pipes to stop its sewage inflow ending up in the stormwater drainage system—a requirement under the current plan. The CRD’s January 7 documents single out Oak Bay for not doing enough on this matter. When asked about this issue, Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen didn’t seem aware of the problem. “The infiltration of concern is the other way around, namely storm water seeping into the sewer lines,” Jensen said. In fact, Oak Bay has both problems but so far has done little to address either. Nor does Jensen appear willing to challenge the allocation of so much capacity—and funding—to Langford for growth that may not happen even though money is needed now to keep sewage out of Oak Bay’s stormwater drains. “Langford is a growing community that requires more capacity over the coming decades,” Jensen said. “On the other hand, Oak Bay is a very stable population with very little growth expected which may require less capacity as [rainwater inflow and infiltration] are dealt with and water conservation trends continue. A perfectly equitable funding formula in such different circumstances is indeed challenging.” Jensen chairs both the CRD and the sewage committee.

The McLoughlin plan would increase Langford’s capacity by 337 percent, from 4.2 million litres per day to 14.2 million litres, ostensibly because growth projections—made in 2009 when the CRD was projecting a boom in multi-family housing on the Westshore that never happened—pointed in this direction. Such an expansion might benefit developers on the Westshore, but Langford taxpayers could end up paying double their current tax as a result. 

The public and political pushback to the plan to provide more capacity than necessary could even prompt both Colwood and Langford to abandon the Westside coalition, Gilbert warns. 

Some of these issues are unlikely to be solved by the Westside Solutions or the Eastside Select Committee on their own, at least not under their current terms of reference, which by and large confines their role to sounding out public opinion and recommending preferred solutions. Indeed, Gilbert is concerned that the subregional committees might fall apart under the strain. 

“I look on these subregional groups now as study groups—raising discussion and engaging local communities, whether they raise solutions or not,” he says. “The main benefit they can have is to get those who live along the sewer trunk lines and the shorelines to fully understand the issue and to get them to support a reasonable solution.”

Assuming all of this can be brought under control and resolved and that the subregional committees are able to come up with a consensus agreement on the solution the region wants to pursue, what happens next? How likely is it that the sewage committee and the CRD Board, which have the final say and which up to now have refused to alter course, will vote to approve a new model of sewage treatment? 

“If you look at the current CRD directors, there is perhaps a majority on the sewage committee who would support a sustainable model,” says Corps. “But the final decision on financials happens at the Board where it’s more difficult to predict because the vote is proportional. You’d have to go down the member list one by one and determine not just how each might vote, but what that vote is worth in the proportional system.”

Others are more optimistic. Vic Derman, for one, believes that the near-unanimous vote to approve his motion to research alternative models is a game-changer, although he admits it won’t work without other changes as well. “I would hope that [the Board] would agree they are there to adopt the best solution for their constituents and not there just to defend a single position,” he says. “The biggest issue is that everybody has to be willing to be objective and get informed about the integrated approach. If they don’t we could end up with the same plan.”

(As Focus was going to press with this edition, Helps was elected chair and Derman vice-chair of the Eastside Select Committee.)

Februay 8, 2015 UPDATE: At the time this story was first published, Focus neglected to include information it had that Chris Corps has a commercial agreement with a company that could supply goods and services in the implementation of a sewage treatment system in the region.  

Derry McDonell’s career includes stints as Editor of Monday Magazine, publisher/editor of BC Digest and the first publisher of Canadian HR Reporter.