Wasting an opportunity

The lull in economic growth has created a rare opportunity to manage future expansion in Central Alberta.

The lull in economic growth has created a rare opportunity to manage future expansion in Central Alberta.

And no project is more fundamental to healthy growth in the area than a regional wastewater system.

Last August, Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling suggested that provincial financial support for a regional wastewater system was imminent. The estimated cost of the three-part system at that time was estimated at $285 million to $300 million.

The first part of the system, serving communities as far south as Olds, is going to tender this month, on a budget of $107 million. The province has pledged 90 per cent of that, with the remainder coming from the communities taking part.

The system would ultimately serve communities south, north and west of Red Deer, funnelling the waste into an upgraded, expanded city plant (the city will borrow up to $90 million to get the plant upgraded).

It would put an end to substandard sewage treatment, either in small municipal plants or through septic fields.

It would prevent seepage into lakes, rivers and creeks as housing development crowds around Central Alberta waterways. It would ensure treated wastewater only went instream at one point, and that point would be downstream from Red Deer’s water intake (where a similar regional water system originates). Ultimately, it would mean fewer staff needed to run one large plant rather than several smaller ones, and lower costs to maintain the best technology.

The project has been pursued in bits and pieces, discussed and supported by councils throughout the region, studied by consultants and encouraged by Alberta Environment.

But we have yet to see concrete plans and funding for the western and northern legs of the project.

Since Flewwelling first nudged the province on the need for funding, the project has become more critical and the final bill has likely become more affordable.

This week, Red Deer County announced that it would do $8 million in road paving this year, accelerating a 10-year program by eight years because costs came in at half of last year’s values. Similar cost savings will no doubt be found in other infrastructure projects, including a wastewater pipeline, and public money can be stretched to its maximum impact.

This is not a simple project, and it will take years to complete; the last portion of the south leg won’t be done until October 2011. It will require construction in stages, and many of the lines will likely run alongside road allowances, meaning attendant road upgrades (that’s cheaper and easier, in the long run, than getting landowner approval for cross-country routes).

But all the routes should be mapped out in detail now, with full public meetings, and the communities involved should be prepared for the moment when their treatment ponds are obsolete. In Sylvan Lake, the town is undergoing an upgrade of its wastewater treatment plant as a stop-gap, to handle trucked-in waste from summer villages. That’s a positive move, alleviating the possibility of waste leaching into the lake from individual homes. And Sylvan town council recognizes the long-term fix, perhaps as soon as five years, is a regional system. Other communities need to similarly look forward.

We’ve been teased by infrastructure-boosting budgets from both the federal and provincial governments in the last four months, but we’ve received few details about which projects are likely to gain favour. Certainly no substantial money has made its way into Central Alberta.

And there are many worthy projects — from roads and bridges to community facilities — waiting in the wings. But if we can’t handle our wastewater, Central Alberta will become a wasteland for citizens and businesses.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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