Three years ago this month, a dozen politicians gathered at the Inn at Laurel Point for a press conference about sewage treatment funding. Reporters from every outlet in town took furious notes as officials proudly committed $500 million from the provincial and federal governments towards the most expensive project in Capital Region history.
Langford Coun. Denise Blackwell, then chair of the CRD’s core area liquid waste management committee, estimated shovels would be in the ground by the “beginning of next year, for sure.”
That year came and went, as did 2014, with little more than an upgraded pumping station and $60 million to show for it, as ill-advised plans to put a wastewater treatment plant and a biosolids facility in Esquimalt imploded.
An educated public raised hell to push the reset button and eventually proved that the democratic process can still putter to life when prodded.
But what has the region actually accomplished since that hot July morning full of gold-star promises?
The CRD is at least attempting to collaboratively restart the sewage locomotive before federal treatment guidelines come down hard in 2020; and local elections have installed new mayors who prize public engagement over cocooned decision-making in the two largest Southern Island municipalities.
As Langford Mayor Stew Young told the News recently, the botched Seaterra program has been “a debacle and waste of taxpayers’ money,” and he noted most of that wasted money won’t be recovered.
That means the final price tag for a regional sewage treatment network is almost certainly going to increase beyond the allotted $788 million, which means the overspend will be siphoned directly from the coffers of municipalities and by proxy, homeowners’ bank accounts.
When the people stop being heard, they get angry. As Saanich Coun. Leif Wergeland noted when Saanich rejected the Watkiss Way site for consideration: “I think it’s important we let our citizens decide.”
Instead, only five people made a decision for the entire region that day. People were denied a chance to view the evidence for themselves.
Politicians like Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and other accessible CRD directors deserve credit for buckling down on the Westside and Eastside sewage committees to openly engage the public on selecting the best sites. The transparent process provides hope that some politicians are shaking off the slumber of the past decade and recognizing that their closed-loop feedback system has backfired catastrophically.