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Water Treatment: Innovation and action are keys to infrastructure investment


June 19, 2016  


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I spoke last about innovation in the wastewater industry, and how professional engineers need to adopt it while also staying responsible to the public. Prior to that, I spoke of regulatory and political process delays, and the consideration of modular construction as a potential solution to indecision. Lastly, I reviewed our aging infrastructure, and the recognition that this will cost all of us — and it cannot solved by government largesse, which can be inefficient.

So what does this mean going forward with our infrastructure requirements, which must be addressed beyond just the rhetoric? I have often commented on the efficiency of the private sector in dealing with infrastructure requirements. This is applicable when based on a costing formula based on profit, and an identified timeline to end of use. How can this be applicable to the public sector, which must address long-term continuous use of infrastructure well beyond the expected life time, yet do so given competing interests and short-term thinking?

Most Canadians understand how their current lifestyles will impact climate change — how it could even lead to homelessness and poverty. However, without infrastructure, we will all be homeless, and climate change will continue to impact us, including the need to relocate. This is an overwhelming issue, which can only be addressed by making bold decisions and recognizing the impacts to citizens will be disproportional depending on location and scope of works.

No one wants to live next door to a treatment facility, but the idea of NIMBY (not in my back yard), needs to be reflected as either an amenity in exchange or an increase in the level of servicing to mitigate those concerns — or in some balance of these. Granted, it is doubtful that we can replace sewage and water infrastructure with the same level of convenience as, say roadways, but there is a middle ground. And if we don’t we will all be relegated to managing water services on our own. When a water well can cost $15,000 to $20,000 and an on-site septic system another $20,000 to $30,000, it is not difficult to see the advantage in centralizing facilities, as well as the justification for costs.

The regulatory process is the driver for minimum levels of servicing. The determination of this is based upon balancing impacts to health, and impacts to the environment. The phrase “solution to pollution is dilution” is an old adage, which addresses the appropriate servicing requirements. For example, it might be feasible to have onsite septic for a single-family home on a 0.4-hectare lot, but this might not be feasible for city lots of less than 500 square metres due to available area for disposal, as well as the cumulative effects of residuals such as nitrates on ground water.

The City of Victoria uses the argument that discharging raw, screened sewage to a 20-kilometre-wide, fast-flowing water body provides the level of dilution acceptable. And it is generally correct. However, the City should still find a better balance — instead of a confined discharge (small tributary river), maybe an open, large dilution discharge (Strait of Juan de Fuca)? Shellfish are susceptible to pathogens from sewage, which can impact their commercial viability.

Tourism issues used as financial leverage can present a destination of less desirability. So as flawed as our regulatory processes may be, as well as determining responsibility for providing a level of service, the aspect of fairness and equity is present in the decision process. Open dialogue on the benefits of infrastructure investment require longterm thinking and community involvement. Decisions are all too often driven by a vocal minority.

It is important to engage the community at large, as they will be the ones paying in the end. It is also important to fully understand the true cost of the infrastructure. Federal and provincial grants create an imbalance in have and have-not projects, and preclude certain projects (i.e. improvement districts) from being eligible. Grants also create the opportunity for delay, as the excuse will always be subject to funding authorization prior to proceeding.

Infrastructure is important for the sustainability and advancement of human health, as well as protection of the environment. It is the building block of which all other social agenda items can proceed. It is time for a reinvestment and renewal of the infrastructure. It is time to put the greater benefit of the community against local concerns by reflecting on system improvements or local amenities to address those concerns.

It is time to reflect on the true cost of infrastructure and address how best to replace grants and have works completed. It is time to move forward and past excuses. Doing so, will provide the impetus for problem solving and improving the social agenda.

About the author: Mike Seymour has more than 25 years’ experience in water and wastewater treatment for small decentralized systems throughout B.C. He is currently involved with the BC Water and Waste Association. Seymour is also the principal with MSR Solutions Inc. in Victoria. He can be reached at 250.479.5164.