Lack of septic rules holding back growth

Frustrated Lacombe County councillors say Alberta Environment has offered little guidance as the municipality faces development pressures that could add thousands of lakeside residents in coming years.

Frustrated Lacombe County councillors say Alberta Environment has offered little guidance as the municipality faces development pressures that could add thousands of lakeside residents in coming years.

“I believe your department has put this province on hold. And I’m getting damned frustrated,” said Councillor Rod McDermand.

The county is potentially facing unprecedented population growth because of a number of proposed RV resort developments that lure throngs of seasonal residents to Gull and Sylvan Lakes.

Allowing large RV resorts has raised a number red flags, including how to dispose of large amounts of sewage. The county has favoured large communal septic systems, rather than the individual holding tanks and septic fields that have been commonly used in smaller developments for decades.

There are a number of communal systems available and new sewage treatment and handling systems are being touted, but county officials say they have received little direction from Alberta Environment on standards.

“You won’t believe how many hours we’ve sat in this council chamber talking communal septic systems,” said McDermand on Friday. “At the end of the day, we’re no further ahead.”

McDermand said the county can pave roads and handle the other tasks necessary for new projects to proceed, but the unanswered questions about how waste water must be treated block any progress.

County Reeve Terry Engen said the municipality could allow developments to go with individual septic systems for each lot, which are allowed and approved by the Municipal Affairs department without going through Alberta Environment.

The county does not want to take that route because it believes communal systems offer a better environmental alternative.

“I hope I’m conveying we’re caught in a very awkward position between your two departments while trying to do the right thing,” he said.

David Helmer, an approvals manager with Alberta Environment’s Red Deer office, said cluster-style waste water management systems are fairly new and there has not been a lot of experience with them. “We don’t have a good, established policy in this area.”

He disputed the province had put development “on hold” on the waste water front.

“I believe we can move forward with this thing.”

Alberta Environment has made it clear it does not want traditional septic systems linked together without some sort of secondary treatment to improve the output.

Councillor Bill Knight said one of the problems council faces is how to assess new technologies suggested by developers.

He wanted to know if Alberta Environment had experts to determine whether proposed waste solutions were viable.

Helmer said most waste treatment systems are variations of previous technologies and the department has experts who can review them.

The biggest concern with unproven technology is what happens if the system doesn’t work, he said. RV resort development residents would likely not have the money to pay for another.

The province is also concerned it could prove difficult for RV resort developments to maintain the expertise needed to operate complicated communal waste systems.

The province would like to see municipalities take over operation of communal sewage systems in new developments and operate them like a utility.

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