Despite decades of ridicule and protest, Victoria continues the foul practice of treating the Puget Sound like a toilet bowl. What will it take, Oh Canada, to bring your sewage treatment into the 20th century?
EVERY day, Victoria, B.C., and its suburbs flush 21 million gallons of raw sewage into the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca. To put that in perspective, it’s seven times the volume of the toxic mining spill in the Animas River in Colorado — every day. And as Victoria booms, the flow increases.
This has been Victoria’s foul problem for decades. But years of ridicule and a 1993 tourism boycott didn’t end this neglectful approach to sewage treatment. A turd-shaped mascot named Mr. Floatie (it’s worth Googling) added to the theater of the absurd.
Finally, in 2006, with the Vancouver 2010 Olympics looming, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire applied acute political pressure, and the Canadians finally promised to get their, uh, act together.
Victoria sewage timeline
• 1993: Washington state launched a tourism boycott against Victoria because of the region’s lack of formal sewage treatment. State lawmakers forced British Columbia’s premier to enter into an informal agreement with then-Gov. Mike Lowry that Victoria would build primary sewage treatment by 2002 and secondary treatment by 2008.
• 2006: Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire notes Victoria’s broken promises during discussions on 2010 Winter Olympics. B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner orders the Victoria’s Capital Regional District (the district where Victoria is located) to make good on those promises.
• 2009: Washington supported B.C.’s bid to host the Olympics partly because of the commitment on sewage treatment. Then-Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin said the city’s “reputation has been tarnished by our sewage treatment.”
• 2014: Gov. Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine sent a letter to B.C. Premier Christy Clark demanding action. Later that year, the preferred treatment facility site in Esquimalt was rejected in a rezoning dispute. The B.C. government did not intervene, ending the project.
• 2015: King County’s representative resigns from a Capital Regional District board because of “lost confidence” in progress toward a treatment facility. A new siting process begins, but no capital projects are planned.
Source: King County Wastewater Treatment Division
A promised sewage-treatment plant was supposed to open in 2016. Then in 2018. Those plans blew up last year when a local zoning change was denied, and the British Columbia government failed to step in, prompting a righteous protest from Gov. Jay Inslee.
Today, the Victoria region is back to square one, with no treatment plant on the horizon. The failure is an embarrassment for stately Victoria, and it undermines the rigorous work to clean up Puget Sound.
King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division Director Pam Elardo resigned in frustration last month from the board of the agency tasked with building the treatment plant. She’d been brought in for her expertise on such things — it took King County, after all, a decade to build its Brightwater treatment facility.
“It appears that construction and operation of a wastewater treatment system is now years, if not decades, away,” Elardo wrote. “I and King County leadership have lost confidence that the current approach will this time be successful.”
A regional effort, led by Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, is now back to the drawing board, looking at new sites, with an analysis due by the end of the year.
Washingtonians have heard this before, not to mention the excuses that the “natural flushing action” in the Pacific waters off Victoria mitigate the hazards of untreated sewage. Victoria can make those arguments with a semi-straight face only because their more conscientious neighbors on both sides of the border invested in these types of facilities decades ago.
It is well past time for Victoria to do the same. If the planning bogs down — again — it is time for Washington to renew a tourism boycott and a return of Mr. Floatie. The San Juan Islands, after all, are too close for comfort to those outfall pipes that treat the Puget Sound like a toilet bowl.
Oh Canada, what will it take?