Sewercide

By Gene Miller, February 2016

Local politicians are bumbling toward a multi-billion-dollar sewage treatment plan the community doesn’t need.

SewercideWITHOUT INTENTIONALLY WISHING TO set a fecal tone throughout this column, I have to say that Chris Corps, a local capital projects financial strategist, scares the crap out of me. By the time he finishes one of his patented rants about the long and still continuing history of CRD misstep on the wastewater treatment file, I’m left with the impression that we are being governed and managed, and our precious money sluiced down the drain, by Financial Limit Deniers.

FLD’s—bureaucrats who blithely carry on, year after year, spending dough—our dough—on studies, reports, consultants, process, process, and more process, to the accompaniment of adding machine sounds, ka-ching! ka-ching!, and who have managed to-date to cut cheques for over (sit down, please) $76 million. On wastewater treatment planning. Not treatment. Planning.

This is a form of legal and socially abetted insanity, and I call it that for a very particular reason. Any community—its citizens, its elected leaders, its managers—unable to understand the real public benefits money at that scale can deliver, and unable to impose and sustain a culture of judicious investment and spending, is insane.

How much money is $76 million? It’s an amount large enough to transform Downtown’s public realm into a visual delight, an amenity-rich physical paradise, instead of the grim, grubby and underwhelming mess it is today. 

Or we could direct that amount of money to economic development and business attraction, targeted to ocean science and marine tech, and win status as a pre-eminent global research and applied science centre (an outcome, by the way, that would pay business-creation and employment dividends for a very long time). 

Or we could, on our own, completely house and deliver all necessary services to the abject homeless, so that this collective social tragedy and human shambles didn’t stare up at us from every street-corner, park bench and cardboard mattress.

A million, two million, even five million? Sure. But 76 million and counting? I’m stunned CRD management hasn’t received death threats. Or termination notices.

As you read this, the Capital Regional District appears to be bumbling and stumbling toward a determination of site, operating system and budget on wastewater treatment—the latter described in the media as a roughly $1.1-1.3 billion infrastructure undertaking. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who is current chair of CALWMC, the CRD’s Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee, was quoted in the news in early December, reminding us that “[Cost is] at a conceptual level. When the last plan was first costed in 2007, it was $1.2 billion and it came down to $788 million.”

Let’s hope she’s right (after all, way lower’s way better), but let me borrow a few prophetic lines from Focus publisher David Broadland’s June, 2015 column: “If the sewage treatment project turns out to be anything like the [Johnson Street] bridge project, local taxpayers are in for a wild ride. The bridge experience provides insight into the level of optimism bias about cost that’s built into local political and governance cultures.” 

“Optimism bias.” Lovely and diplomatic turn of phrase. A less circumspect and more jaundiced observer might reach for “clusterfuck.”

I guess chairs of regional liquid waste management committees can’t be quoted in the media showing pessimism bias: “Holy shit, if the conceptual cost is $1.3 billion, what’s to keep the actual cost from topping out at $2 or 3 billion?”

This, by the way, is what the aforementioned Corps is forecasting. And who knows what Urban Systems, the CRD’s latest consultant on this project, is excluding from that billion-plus number, and whether all kinds of “marginal” items have been conveniently swept to the unlit corners of the public conversation about project scope and cost. Stuff like this could make catastrophists of even the most hopeful among us.

As you read this, essential questions and contradictions continue to swirl regarding every aspect of this would-be project. Nothing in recent memory has triggered so much raging debate, released so much suspicion, or generated so much cynicism about the values and agendas of every player and stakeholder involved. Triggered everything, unfortunately, but a metaphoric lynch mob.

If you sift all of the over-coffee gossip and business lunch rumour-swapping, you learn that: municipal politicians and CRD management have been seduced by consultants and suppliers of systems and services who wine and dine them; Ottawa listened to Seattle’s complaints about our deepwater sewer outfalls befouling Puget Sound without first considering the science that makes that an impossible outcome, and additional wastewater treatment unnecessary; all the local lefty politicians are supporting big infrastructure because it means lots of long-term work and fat contracts for union crews and companies; even though precedents exist, Ottawa wouldn’t exempt Victoria from the need for additional treatment, though it could have through a legal exclusion; local politicians are dismissively treating their worried constituents like pests or lunatics; innovators who propose to the CRD much cheaper alternatives to the conventional plan are humoured then sent away; local politicians are afraid of rocking the boat out of fear Ottawa will never offer us another dime for capital works; the wastewater treatment plant site selection’s a done deal and Greater Victoria taxpayers are going to pay $70 million for the Rock Bay dirt alone; city streets and other arteries are going to be torn up for years, financially damaging nearby businesses without recompense; and, saving perhaps the worst for last, whatever “they” say it’ll cost—$800 million or $1.2 billion—think “times two.”

Concerning this last point, Eric Jaffe writes in The Atlantic: “The only thing we can confidently expect from a big infrastructure project is that it will cost way more than expected. The people who predict the cost of urban mega-projects do a terrible job. Nine in ten projects exceed their cost estimates. The overruns average 28 percent across the board.”

So, let’s play loose and call 28 percent a third. One-third of consultant Urban System’s $1.1-1.3 billion estimate, rounded, comes to $400 million, making possible a total project cost of $1.6 billion.

I’m not the sharpest spreadsheet on the block, but my napkin math suggests that regional taxpayers will be forking over $500-$800 or more a year for 50 years to deal with the capital and operating costs of this one.

A link to a video of a CRD board meeting is quietly making the rounds these days. It features now ex-CRD Chair, Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, quizzing a Stantec Engineering wastewater expert in a Q&A which conveniently permits the expert to draw the foregone conclusion that only conventional wastewater handling technologies are appropriate, other technologies being “risky” and “unproven.” If you tend toward fury over insane public spending protocols, you will find Jensen’s witness-leading performance surreal and vomitous, a strangely dreamlike piece of public theatre, and a revelatory example of inter-municipal aversion to innovation and enterprise clumsily dressed up as risk-avoidance.

And this is central to the problem we’re facing: that the CRD mandate, or letters patent or charter nowhere states: “The CRD will treat the public’s money as a precious resource. It will not waste a dime. It will operate with a leadership model that makes it morally and operationally impossible to justify spending $76 million on wastewater treatment studies.” The CRD’s passions, character and esprit de corps may exist but are diffuse, and the problem is structural: No one had to raise his or her right hand at the moment of their appointment and state, clear-eyed, “The buck absolutely stops here.”

The stakes and implications of wastewater treatment decision-making are enormous. Wrong and costly choices will impact both taxpayers and public wealth. That is, this potentially multi-billion-dollar undertaking could for years make the taxpaying electorate gun-shy and hobble (or foreclose) other municipal spending on housing, public realm beautification, parks services, supports for culture and recreation, investment in economic development, other needed public works, and God knows what else on various municipal to-do lists.

Helps, new to the CALWMC chair, is, in my opinion, staring system failure in the eye here—not evil, but a professional disregard for the limits of community wealth combined with insufficient recognition of the crucial need for thrifty, innovative thinking and doing. It’s difficult to understand exactly which public and/or professional bodies to hold to account, but I actually worry it’s the operating governance culture, a form of soft social rot. Like ash-raking an exhausted relationship: “Where did we go wrong?” and never coming up with an answer better than: “Oh, well, shit happens.” 

In a rangy Atlantic Magazine piece, “What Was Volkswagen Thinking,” writer Jerry Useem describes a landmark study of damage to the O-rings on the doomed space shuttle Challenger: “Engineers and managers developed a definition of the situation, a ‘script,’ that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong. To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it.”

Quick, think of a synonym for optimism bias.

Gene Miller is a founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences. He currently serves on the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability.

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