Given how long the issue of sewage treatment has percolated in the Capital Region, it’s clear local politicians have had a difficult time agreeing on how to get it done. So what happens when politicians from a jurisdiction in another country take action in an attempt to steer the sewage treatment ship in Greater Victoria?
The recent support for legislation in Washington State that would ban the reimbursement for any business travel to Victoria by state employees – except in emergency or court-ordered situations – for the next year or until the CRD ceases to pump untreated sewage into the ocean shows our neighbours to the south continue to watch we’re doing on the issue.
As anyone who has advocated for the region’s tourism sector over the past 20-plus years can attest, this isn’t the first time Washingtonians have made a stink about our lack of sewage treatment.
Mike Harcourt, who grew up in Victoria and lectures these days on environmental stability among other topics, was B.C.’s premier in 1992 when he signed the Environmental Co-operation Agreement with then Washington governor Mike Lowry.
That deal, which came a year before a U.S. group unhappy with the lack of progress threatened a tourism boycott of the city, was part of a broader collective vision for the Georgia Basin and Cascadia, Harcourt says.
“It’s a very fragile, difficult area with lots of challenges, including pollution of the water and the air, runoff from pulp mills, raw sewage and car exhaust,” he says.
That co-operative approach to regional environmental issues, in part, led to Harcourt promising Lowry in an informal agreement in 1993 that Victoria would have primary treatment in place by 2002, and secondary treatment up and running sometime between 2008 to 2013.
He recalls some of the work being done at the time, including a joint scientific panel set up with researchers from the University of Victoria and Washington state. That group, having studied the shared marine waters, came back with what Harcourt characterizes as “bizarre” findings.
“To our astonishment, they said ‘yes-no,’” he says of how they answered the question of whether damage was being done to the marine environment near Greater Victoria’s outfalls.
Harcourt believes the findings not only convinced Victoria member of parliament and then minister of environment David Anderson not to put any federal dollars into treatment, but led him to embrace the notion that “dilution is the solution.”
Of Lowry and himself Harcourt says, “We were stymied, he and I, because our scientists came up with this ambivalent, at best, response.”
There have been other sewage-related snubs since. A telling one came last summer when Pam Elardo, director of King County’s wastewater treatment division and Washington representative on the Seaterra Commission overseeing the CRD’s sewage treatment efforts, quit over the project’s lack of progress. In her resignation letter she wrote, “It appears that construction and operation of a wastewater treatment system is now years, if not decades, away.”
The Seattle Times newspaper followed up with an editorial calling Victoria’s political process “constipated” and wrote, “The failure is an embarrassment for stately Victoria, and it undermines the rigorous work to clean up Puget Sound.”
Other Washington governors have told Victoria to get on with it and implored the province to intervene, from Christine Gregoire during a pre-Olympics chat with Gordon Campbell in 2006, to Jay Inslee last year after the McLoughlin plan blew up.
As to whether optics are playing a role in Washington getting involved yet again, Tourism Victoria CEO Paul Nursey can give a firsthand answer.
“This stuff really hurts us a lot. When I’m pitching conferences it always come up,” he says. “The Washington State employee thing is a very small number, but it’s the negative publicity around that that is damaging.”
Harcourt admits there has been “nonsense” spoken about the issue on both sides from people without credentials.
Regardless of negative comments and potential boycotts, the bottom line, he says, is that the region just needs to get on with it. “This is about what you would expect any municipality to do in Canada or the U.S., which is to treat your sewage.”
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