An aerial view of Comox Lake. Photo by David Stapely.

An aerial view of Comox Lake. Photo by David Stapely.

CVRD and Island Health at odds as water treatment project faces delays

Island Health can impose penalties on the CVRD due to the project’s delays

The Comox Valley Regional District’s $105-million water treatment project is facing setbacks, and the Vancouver Island Health Authority is none too happy about it.

While construction of the Comox Valley Water Treatment Project (CVWTP) was initially scheduled to begin in 2018, a recent CVRD staff report to the Comox Valley Water Committee suggests completion of the project could now be delayed by up to two years.

The report — made public by the water committee after an in-camera portion of its Sept. 12 meeting — says the delay is mainly due to changing deadlines for government grant applications.

“CVRD staff evaluated the impact of expected infrastructure grant dates on the overall project schedule and conclude that project completion will be delayed until mid-2021,” the report reads.

Read More: Time ticking for water treatment project.

The CVWTP is a large capital project that will see the creation of a new water system in the Comox Valley. The $105-million undertaking will include a new deep-water intake at Comox Lake, a raw water pumping station and a new transmission line, as well as direct filtration and an ultraviolet disinfection plant.

The water system will service 45,000 people in Courtenay, Comox, and surrounding areas.

According to CVRD chief administrative officer Russel Dyson, the CVWTP is necessary because the provincial government has adopted new standards for water treatment in B.C.

Quality of drinking water has been an issue for years in the Comox Valley, with high levels of turbidity in water sources. The CVRD occasionally issues boil-water-advisories (BWAs) to the public due to the region’s water quality.

“Those [BWAs] are a function of the fact that there is turbidity in the water and other things like parasites,” said Dyson. “That’s why other communities in B.C. have advanced their treatments. We plan to do what other communities have done.”

Island Health’s response:

The Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) does not support the CVWTP’s expected delays. Island Health is responsible for implementing the province’s new standards for water treatment.

Staff from the CVRD and Island Health met to discuss the project’s timeline on July 27. According to the CVRD staff report, Island Health “indicated that an extension would not be granted to our Permit to Operate and outlined potential penalties if the CVRD did not comply with the existing permit.”

Island Health’s operating permit with the CVRD expires in September 2019. The water treatment project — which has been in the works for many years — was initially hoped to be completed by 2019 or 2020.

Following that July 27 meeting, Island Health penned a letter to the CVRD outlining the agency’s concerns with the water treatment project’s expected delay.

“Island Health is not supportive of your proposed delay in constructing the filtration plant and related works…” reads a portion of the letter, written by environmental health officer Dave Cherry.

The CVRD staff report suggested that penalties imposed by Island Health to the CVRD could include:

  • Fines totaling approximately $3,000 per day.
  • Withholding approval of construction permits by the Island Health drinking water officer.
  • Issuing public health advisory notices regarding the health risks inherent to the CVRD’s current water system until the surface water treatment objectives are met.

Dyson says that as the region’s healthcare authority, Island Health can set conditions on the Regional District. If the RD doesn’t meet those requirements, they could “face a number of punitive conditions.”

“We don’t know specifically what Island Health would do, but they could possibly curtail development, not allow for new connections onto the water system, not allow us to extend our water mains to service new customers, fine us, or place an order that requires us to meet their standards within a certain timeframe.”

“Those are all at the discretion of Island Health,” he continued. “They would probably weigh the circumstances.”

Island Health issued the following statement in lieu of an interview:

“Currently, the sole disinfection of chlorination does not provide a barrier against protozoa that may be in the drinking water, specifically cryptosporidium or giardia,” wrote medical health officer Charmaine Enns.

“The CVRD is working towards meeting the B.C. requirements for surface water supplies. Island Health will continue to work closely with the CVRD to have this project completed in as timely a way as possible.”

Though the two sides appear to be at odds, one positive thing discussed between Island Health and the CVRD on July 27 was the potential for installing ultraviolet filtration at the RD’s existing chlorination station.

Cherry’s letter states that setting up UV filtration would reduce health risks associated with the CVWTP’s delay and act as a temporary solution until the project is completed.

“The installation of a second primary disinfectant as soon as possible would significantly reduce the health risk to the community,” reads the letter.

Approval of public assent:

The Sept. 12 staff report also outlines that the Comox Valley Water Committee will have to decide how to approve borrowing for the water treatment project. At its next meeting, the committee will vote to use either a referendum or the alternate approval process (AAP) to approve the borrowing of funds.

Under the AAP, 10 per cent of voters or more would have to submit electoral response forms opposing borrowing for it not to be approved. The report acknowledges that this is a more likely way to succeed gaining public approval.

“An AAP is more likely to succeed than a referendum, as it is harder to mobilize supportive residents to vote than those opposed to the project,” reads the report.

Even though the CVRD has faced backlash from constituents for using the AAP on other projects, Dyson said the regional district is leaning in that direction.

“We understand people are apprehensive or concerned with the alternative approval process, but what we have to do is get permission to borrow money,” he said. “We’re not asking the public if they agree with this project — we have to do it. But we have to get permission to borrow money.

CVRD seeking alternative funding sources:

The CVWTP’s $105 million price tag will have to be split by internal and external sources. The CVRD aims to secure more than half of the project’s funding through provincial and federal grants.

From its own sources, the CVRD already has about $24 million squared away in its reserves for the project.

In lieu of property taxes going towards the CVWTP, Dyson says the water system’s users will pay a toll fee to fund the rest of the project.

“It will only be those who benefit from the water system directly who will pay for the borrowing that we have to do,” he said.

With the province’s grant application schedule being delayed, the CVRD is now looking for alternative funding sources from senior levels of government.

CVRD staff will seek meetings with MLAs and cabinet ministers at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) conference in Vancouver this week to discuss the possibility of securing a special treasury allocation.

A special treasury allocation would mean the water treatment project could be designated as a project of priority by the province. This would allow the CVRD to secure external funding for the project a year earlier than scheduled.

“If this option were supported by the Treasury Board, funding would be available for the CVWTP in 2018, rather than waiting until 2019, facilitating project completion in 2020 and avoiding an additional winter of [Boil Water Advisories],” reads the Sept. 13 report.

The UBCM takes place Sept. 25–29.

The Comox Valley Water Committee will discuss how to move ahead with the issues mentioned in this article at an extended committee meeting on Oct. 17. The meeting is open to the public and takes place at the CVRD’s rented building on Comox Road.