By George Le Masurier —

While the Capital Regional District slowly moves toward consensus on where to locate one or more sewage treatment plants, another wastewater infrastructure battle is just beginning further up Vancouver Island.

In the Comox Valley, strong disagreements have arisen over how to replace a deteriorating 35-year-old sewer pipeline that was unfortunately constructed through the foreshore of the Courtenay River estuary, under a regional park and along the foot of the iconic Willemar Bluffs.

Neither controversy should surprise anyone: siting a public facility within a developed urban area presents unique technical and political difficulties that can only be overcome by extraordinarily skillful political leaders solely focused on the greater good.

But in the Valley, a questionable siting process has led to a short-sighted plan that harms both taxpayers and the environment.

It’s remarkable that provincial agencies allowed the City of Courtenay and the Town of Comox to build a pipeline that carries raw sewage along the foreshore of several environmentally sensitive areas enroute to a treatment plant. Concerns about climate change and sea level rise were only beginning then, but someone should have seen the potential for an environmental disaster.

A 2005 engineering report recommended abandoning the section of the pipeline that runs along the base of the Willemar Bluffs, where it is vulnerable to winter storms. But the rest of the pipeline also needs to be replaced. In a few years, the main pump station in Courtenay will be inadequate to handle the volume created by one of the province’s fastest growing regions.

Instead of creating a new sewerage master plan for the entire Comox Valley, the CVRD is poised to apply a band-aid for Courtenay and Comox. It proposes to replace only the last half of the sewer pipeline with an overland route. But instead of upgrading the existing secondary pump station in Comox, the CVRD proposed a new pump station on Beech Street, a dense neighborhood outside the Town of Comox boundaries. This may violate the CVRD’s own bylaws.

After protests from the Beech neighborhood, the CVRD abandoned the site. But it foolishly choose another site on an intact K’omoks midden within one of the few remaining salt marshes in an Environmentally Sensitive Area Development Permit Zone, which would have also blocked a popular beach access.

It’s astonishing that the CVRD didn’t step back from these blunders and re-examine its process. They did eventually form an Advisory Committee, but it ignored the committee’s recommendations and has returned to its original Beech Street location, which the committee ranked as the worst option.

It’s unfair to site this facility in the Beech neighborhood because it has no representation on the sewage commission. Courtenay cast its three votes to oppose the Beech Street site, but a CFB Comox vote helped the three Comox representatives win a 4-3 decision.

This is unfortunate. It’s undemocratic, and dismisses public sentiment. It sets up a political and legal battle. And it creates unnecessary conflict despite having a ready solution that would receive wide public support — and which could potentially qualify the project for federal infrastructure funding.

The CVRD’s Advisory Committee gave its top recommendation to rebuilding the existing pump station in Courtenay. An independent analysis shows the CVRD could save between $7 million and $12 million in the long term if it upgraded the pumps at Courtenay and replaced the entire pipeline now. This would eliminate the need for a second pump station and eliminate the exposed section under the Willemar Bluffs.

But the remaining old pipe has to be replaced eventually, so it would be even better to reroute all of the pipeline overland. This would prevent an environmental catastrophe because a burst pipe today could pour raw sewage into the estuary.

A more ambitious plan would also prevent other battles. It’s unlikely that Environment Canada, Fisheries and the K’omoks First Nation will ever allow the CVRD to replace the pipe that runs through the estuary. The CVRD has no such agreement with agencies or the K’omoks First Nation, who recently won an award for the protection and restoration of the estuary.

It’s curious why the CVRD has not considered this win-win option. It saves long-term money. It avoids serious conflict now. It heads off future lawsuits. And it would surely score political points for the regional directors who finally correct a 35-year-old mistake.

This article was originally published in the Victoria Times-Colonist.

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