I’ll say this right up front: I’m not eager to pay several hundred dollars more per year in taxes to feel better about flushing the toilet.
After decades of debate, bad publicity, many studies and one rejected referendum, Greater Victoria is about to spend $782 million on secondary sewage treatment.
For me, reality hit home when the Capital Regional District’s sewage committee released numbers that showed the possible tax hike for the average property. Living in a condo in Victoria, that’s about $300 or the high $200s (the average is $353) for my household. For my friends with a young family in Langford, it’s in the ballpark of $330. For my retired parents in Saanich, it’s an extra $230. If you are on a fixed income like they are, that’s a noticeable hit to one’s personal finances.
Looking back at the history of sewage treatment in Victoria, it’s hard to pry apart the ideology from the science, and what actually makes sense financially and environmentally.
Greater Victoria actually had a sewage referendum in November 1992. Residents had the option of paying nothing, paying an extra $232 in taxes per $100,000 of their property value (for primary treatment) or paying $336 per $100,000 of property value (for secondary treatment, which is what we are buying today).
If voting yourself a massive tax hike isn’t doomed to fail, I don’t know what is. Is it reasonable to expect that a person with a $200,000 home would voluntarily take on nearly $700 in extra taxes?
I’m pretty sure I voted for no tax hike back then, which, from one perspective, helped pass the buck to the current generation and my future self. Thanks for nothing, 1992.
Back then too, people in Washington State got all uppity about Victoria flushing its screened sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Some Americans even boycotted coming to Victoria, which was a credible threat when the U.S. dollar was worth something.
B.C. and Washington State banded together and funded a 1994 study that found effluent concentrations off Victoria mostly flowed over from Vancouver and Seattle, despite both cities having basic sewage treatment. The study found that discharges from Victoria had a “negligible” effect on the waters in the strait. Victoria isn’t at fault and we can blame Vancouver? Money well spent.
In 2005 I was working at the Ladysmith Chronicle when I met Mr. Floatie (a.k.a. James Skwarok), the famously effective mascot that upended science and the existing rationale with poop humour. Soon after, I called a CRD environmental staffer, who, clearly annoyed and for the millionth time, explained how the Juan de Fuca Strait diluted and flushed Victoria’s effluent to little discernible effect on the marine environment.
A few years later and after the province ordered secondary sewage treatment, the CRD’s official stance flipped 180 degrees. That must have taken quite a bit of employee re-education over at the Fisgard Street office. Repeat after me: “Screened sewage is bad, secondary sewage treatment is good …”
A major independent scientific review in 2006 on the impact of dumping screened sewage into the ocean agreed that the Strait of Juan de Fuca is pretty good at flushing effluent away, and that bacteria plumes only rise to the surface during major rain events. Basically, the risk to human health is minimal, unless you are swimming laps offshore in a storm.
The report didn’t let the city off the hook – it said Victoria’s contribution of contaminants is probably minor, but the CRD needed much better information on the toxicity and impact on the marine environment near the outflows. It didn’t recommend sewage treatment outright, but said flushing wastewater into the strait isn’t a long-term solution.
It’s tough to argue against that. But is jumping to expensive secondary treatment necessary? If some form of sewage treatment is inevitable, the tax burden needs to be phased in incrementally. Victoria is expensive enough. Suddenly raise taxes by $300 and something will hit the fan.
— Edward Hill is the editor of the Saanich News.