Treated sewage is trickling out of Lacombe’s near-capacity lagoons into Wolf Creek.
The problem drew a written warning in May from Environment Canada for violating the Fisheries Act by releasing a substance “deleterious to fish” that could reach a waterway.
So far, there is no indication that fish have been harmed by the small amounts released. It is quickly diluted. Environment Canada, which was told of the release as soon as it was spotted, is not talking about fines.
Surprisingly, Lacombe’s sewage trickle is considered the lesser of two evils.
Matthew Goudy, Lacombe’s director of operations and planning services, said stopping the flow entirely risks a much bigger calamity — a significant breach in one of the city’s treatment lagoons and a much bigger flow of toxic sewage into Wolf Creek, which eventually joins the Battle River in Ponoka County.
“If we continued to hold everything back, we would over-top the berms (separating sewage treatment and storage cells) and we would have a release of untreated sewage, possibly a major release if the berms failed,” said Goudy.
“We have no choice but to slowly release at a very, very slow rate the treated end of the sewage.”
In the sometimes confusing collision between provincial and federal environmental regulators, the trickling sewage meets Alberta Environment guidelines for release, but not a fish-kill test that Environment Canada requires in its own regulations.
Federal environment staff use the LC50 test, which puts rainbow trout fingerlings into a substance to test the leaking sewage’s toxicity. In Lacombe’s case, 100 per cent of fish died within five hours at 100 per cent concentration in one test.
“We’re expecting the dilution in the creek has neutralized any toxicity but definitely that effluent, which has been certified as acutely toxic, acutely lethal to the fish it has been tested on, did make it into the creek,” he said.
“So we want to make sure we’re just slowly trickling it out as slow as we possibly can.”
Also fortunate is that there is little “aquatic activity” in the creek.
City officials have known for years that Lacombe was reaching sewage treatment capacity and that a regional sewer line connecting Blackfalds and Lacombe to Red Deer’s high-capacity treatment plant was the best solution.
As far back as 2006, the province assured Lacombe that a regional sewage line was coming and suggested it spend only enough to keep its treatment lagoons running for a few years to buy some time.
With a regional sewage option still nowhere in sight, Lacombe city council is now faced with spending an estimated $5.2 million by 2017 to accomplish another short-term fix. Ammonia treatment would be upgraded and lagoons de-sludged.
That is money that was supposed to have been set aside for the regional sewage system.
Blackfalds is facing similar capacity issues with its sewage treatment. Mayors of both communities committed recently to stepping up lobbying efforts to get provincial funding.
Both communities have put money aside to do the preliminary engineering so they can go ahead as soon as a provincial funding announcement comes.
Meanwhile, Lacombe city council approved spending $32,000 earlier this week to see if engineers could figure out why more sewage is flowing into the lagoons than expected. It’s possible there’s some crossover from storm water that is adding to volumes.
If an answer is found — and that is by no means likely — the city may be able to reduce sewage inflows, keep lagoons from filling as quickly and delay upgrades for a time.