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Same Sewage, Different Day - Gord Stewart

Submitted to Scoop 24 October 2016

Taking the Long View

by Gord Stewart

Same Sewage, Different Day

“Sewage panel shortlists two sites for plant” was the title of the Times Colonist front page article the day I arrived.

It was four years since I had been to Victoria, British Columbia for a visit and 14 years since I shifted to New Zealand, but with the sewage article I felt like I had never left.

Reading newspapers when I’m back in Canada gives me a kind of snapshot in time. I stay in touch with family and friends, of course, but otherwise I have left Canada behind. There’s enough to keep up-to-date on, care about and contribute to here and now.

The sewage discussion had been going on for decades as Victoria continued to dispose of strained but untreated sewage directly into the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula in the US state of Washington. With a long and deep sewage outfall and vigorous tidal flushing action through the Strait, significant dilution and dispersion meant there was no detrimental effect on the marine environment. Scientific studies had long confirmed this and still do.

Only difference in the story now was that a sewage treatment plant was actually going to be built. With nearby Seattle telling tourists not to go to Victoria because they dispose of their raw sewage at sea and some local public pressure, city councillors caved.

The bill for a secondary treatment plant was estimated at $750 million to $1.1 billion. More expensive tertiary treatment was being considered. Federal and provincial infrastructure grants would soften the blow for local ratepayers, but there was no denying the plant was simply not necessary. To top it off, the most appropriate site for a plant (if one was needed) didn’t make the short list, thanks to the not-in-my-backyard power of the community closest to that location.

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Other stories also caught my eye.

Next door to Victoria, the Saanich council was wrestling with their Environmental Development Permit Area bylaw passed four years earlier, but mired in review and dispute. Many of the properties affected were waterfront, with one owner complaining about the “assault on property rights”. A Queen’s Chain might help get it sorted.

A new international study was raising questions about the catch-and-release sport fishery for threatened white sturgeon in the lower Fraser River, an industry worth $50 million annually. The largest freshwater fish in North America, white sturgeon can grow to 800 kg and 6 metres in length. Fish on average are caught once a year, yet the study found that sturgeon can suffer wide-ranging physiological stress and some die as a result of the practice.

When it comes to fresh, local produce, Spinnakers’, a popular Victoria brew pub, is on to it in partnership with Topsoil, an urban agriculture initiative. Topsoil use transitional city spaces to grow fresh vegetables without using chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides or sprays and are located less than a kilometre from the restaurant. “Picked by hand and delivered by bicycle to Spinnakers’ fridge,” boasts the menu. “This is as fresh as it gets!”

Many residents of Northland, Hawkes’ Bay and other locales will be pleased to hear Victoria city councillors unanimously backed a motion calling for rules and scientific protocols to restrict and monitor genetically modified plants in B.C. and Canada.

The many steps Canadian cities are taking to combat climate change are laudable. But they stand in contrast to reports of two energy infrastructure giants joining forces in a $37 billion deal and new seismic data from the Newfoundland and Labrador government pointing to huge offshore oil and gas reserves.

Canada, like New Zealand, has long relied on natural resource exports. Oil and gas is a big one for them, while agriculture, of course, had led the way for us. But change – make that disruption – is coming. Solar power, batteries and electric vehicles will see to the former. Changing dietary habits and ‘food from the lab’, as it’s called, are sure to impact industrial agriculture as we know it.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems up to the challenge. At the Davos economic forum in January, he said, “My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness.”

Our next prime minister could well say the same about New Zealand.

Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profit organisations.

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