CRD has Island Health’s backing on its $1.2B Water Supply Master Plan

CRD has Island Health’s backing on its $1.2B Water Supply Master Plan
Photo: CRD Water Supply Master Plan Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The recommended RWS Capital Improvement Program.

Island Health is recommending that the Capital Regional District go ahead with its plans to build a $1.1-billion water filtration plant that will keep the region’s water supply safe well into the future. However, a special information meeting of the region’s water commissioners raised questions about the true scope and cost of that plan.

The thrust of a three-hour meeting on March 1, was for the CRD to provide water commissioners with more detailed information on its Water Supply Master Plan (WSMP) and its proposed $1 billion Goldstream Water Filtration Plant beyond what it already presented to some city councils.

Island Health medical health officer Michael Benusic, de facto point person for the CRD, was invited by Alicia Fraser, manager of integrated water services to present the plan to regional water commissioners. As an “independent advisor,” his presentation built the case for the CRD Master Plan on the grounds of prudence before panic.

What is the plan?

The Water Supply Master Plan outlines proposed future projects that will be carried out over the next 30 years, based on staff projections of population growth, the impacts of climate change, and water treatment requirements. The plan calls for $2B in infrastructure spending, including 21 proposed new water projects. A key project—and the most expensive—is the proposed Goldstream Water Filtration Plant at the Sooke Reservoir, slated to cost $1B.

The question underpinning the need for the proposed filtration plant in the first place, is whether the Leech River should be brought into the Greater Victoria Water Supply System (GVWSS) to provide additional water to the Sooke Lake Reservoir and resilience to the overall system. In 2007 and 2010, the CRD purchased 96.28 square kilometers of the Leech River watershed which amounts to about 92% of the watershed. That land was designated as the Leech Water Supply Area (Leech WSA) for future supplemental source water.

The need to bring Leech “online” is presented in the master plan in a series of speculative projections around population growth, climate impacts and water consumption for the coming 30 years.

The CRD’s proposed Goldstream Water Filtration Plant hinges on its assumption that bringing the Leech River online to supplement and increase capacity for the GVWSS is a foreseeable and  judicious inevitably. That assumption is underwritten in the plan prepared for the CRD by Stantec, a Vancouver-based environmental, design and project management consulting firm. Stantec could stand to win any number of the contracts for the 21 projects outlined in the master plan, once they go to tender.

By the time these projects are ready to move into build phases, the scheduled costs in the table above will have risen based on recent inflationary upticks in construction costs and ongoing supply chain issues.

Benusic outlined the need to bring the Leech river into the current water supply system, but raised the concern that this will increase turbidity in the water supply. Turbidity is cloudiness in water caused by suspended particles such as clay and silt. At significant levels, it can prevent filtration plants from effectively functioning and keeping drinking water safe.

The GVWSS is currently exempted from filtration requirements, based on Drinking Water Treatment Objectives for Surface Water Supplies in BC guidelines, and Benusic assured the commission that, at this time, there is no urgent need for additional filtration capacity at Sooke, though past recorded spikes in turbidity have raised some alarm. As Benusic indicated during his presentation, as climate change impacts are felt more frequently in the region, turbidity might be an early warning signal that would indicate a need for filtration. Enter the Goldstream Water Filtration Plant.

Outside criticism of the project

The integrity of the water filtration plant proposal and CRD projections has been criticized in a report written by engineer Jonathan Hugget. His report was commissioned by the Urban Development Institute Capital Region, a coalition of development industry groups such as Victoria Residential Builders Association, West Shore Developers Association and the Sooke Builders Association. Hugget’s central criticism of the plan, is his perception of its lack of basis in demonstrable data-driven, evidence-based fact.

“The Master Plan,” says Hugget’s report, “does not demonstrate either compelling scientific rationale for the filtration plant, and its stated implementation date is not supported by the data presented in the Plan.”

Jack Hull, the former general manager of integrated water services at the CRD drafted a letter to the Times Colonist similarly arguing that the CRD is not considering other water usage and management measures. “The Master Plan assumed there was little opportunity for reducing per-capita demand through demand management measures. If we are to face milder wetter winters, longer drier summers and more variable precipitation with climate change, we can’t rely solely on expanding our water sources as the means of meeting demand. Climate change requires a multifaceted response to how we use water.”

Indeed, the bylaws cited in the plan refer to stewardship and the encouragement of water protection measures but not to usage, or production assessment measures. Commissioners were told at the meeting, however,  they could soon expect to see some potential upgrades to the water conservation bylaw that look to adjusting demand and peak flows coming from the Water Advisory Committee.

Dave Saunders, the former mayor of Colwood who currently sits on the Capital Region Land Use Committee disagrees with the CRD’s heavy-handed and one-stop approach.“What they’ve done is they will try to handcuff local politicians to a narrative without really bringing forward all the facts and then they get so far down the road with Stantec engineering and the narrative that it’s too far along in the process to go back to anything other [option]. And now the Island Health authority is backing them up.”

Is the CRD’s only real option to go big or go home?  

Other global jurisdictions like Holland and China are looking at integrated water resource management tools and models such as water footprint caps and water footprint benchmarks, solutions from the discipline of socio-hydrology based on incremental forecasting and water management that is responsive, dynamic and nonlinear. Without suggesting further exploration of GIS-based system dynamics, agent-based modeling (ABM), and hydrologic simulations that consider the socio-economic, administrative and institutional systems, and human variables critical to hydrological modeling, the Master Plan guns, instead, for the costly Goldstream Water Filtration Plant fix.

Some commissioners did question adding the Leech River as the one-stop solution to resolve future water supply needs. Commissioner and Sidney council member Sara Duncan suggested a wait-and-see approach once the plan’s proposed Deep Northern (secondary) Intake at Sooke Reservoir—along with additional storage and head tanks, are in place at Sooke Lake before considering the full Leech River integration which she described as a “potentially overwrought and overengineered option.”

The Deep Northern Intake, a second intake in the Sooke Lake Reservoir would improve system resiliency against natural occurrences like wildfires, and outlining the necessary transmission and treatment facilities.

While impressed by the amount of information provided at the meeting, CRD CAO Ted Robbins agreed with Duncan’s incremental approach. “The sequencing of these projects is critical,” he said. “The second intake provides redundancy, but of course with that access to the deep North base, and that’s a significant increase in source water availability to supplement the system.”

The CRD could then update demand forecasts, he suggested, on a five-year cycle based on data collected over two to three years. “It’s quite possible then,” he said, “that in 20 years and beyond that we can potentially defer the Leech source as we continue to update those projections.”

The CRD’s counter argument to wait-and-see gambit, is that, in the event of a serious or catastrophic occurrence like a wildfire or an extreme drought, there is no time for a just-in-time solution to contaminated or inadequate water sources.

Langford city council member Mary Wagner was enthused about what she heard at the meeting and thinks benefits outweigh costs in the long term. “We’re getting our heads around these large numbers and also the long term so we thought a billion dollars for a filtration plant is a lot, but it’s over 30 years, and you can’t have a just in time filtration plant,” she said.

Commissioners and councillors will have to choose whether it’s the heavy, long-term investment in the Goldstream plant that will solve this dilemma or other, less expensive and more incremental options.

By Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Capital Daily

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