Solution to Osoyoos waste treatment problem proves challenging

No easy wastewater fix

Osoyoos’ latest waste treatment woes which saw the town’s treatment process fail have only intensified calls amongst residents for a new waste treatment facility to solve the issue once and for all.

An increase in demand, a rapid rise and sustained high temperatures are likely factors contributing to the failure of the process, but the flushing of chemicals, grease or other substances could also be a factor, according to the town.

“It's a tricky situation, there's tons of reasons why this could happen. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault that it happened. It's not something that anybody could’ve predicted, or you can blame anyone for not doing their job, that’s not it,” says Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff.

"Wastewater treatment is a complex issue, and it is important to note that no system will completely eliminate odours, including switching to a ‘treatment plant,’ which some have advocated for in the past," says Jared Brounstein, Director of Operational Services.

The cost to construct a full tertiary wastewater treatment plant would be upwards of $40 million plus an approximately $300,000 annual operating cost increase, according to Brounstein’s department. This is part of the reason that the current lagoon method of treating waste is by far the most common method throughout Canada for smaller sized towns.

The Operational Services department adds that the processes of treatment plants can fail just as easily as the town’s current lagoon system. “At this time, the town does not feel that this is an economical solution to our treatment and odour issues, but has and will continue to look at alternative treatment upgrades for our existing lagoon system.”

But even these upgrades could cost as much as $10,000, the town warns.

“We understand that this is frustrating for everyone, but we want to reassure our community that we are working hard to resolve this issue in a timely manner,” Brounstein said.

Replacement of the waste treatment system with modern technology was very much an issue during the municipal election last fall. The Osoyoos First slate comprised of mayoral contender Dustin Sikora, and council contenders Johnny Cheong (elected), Zach Poturica (elected) and Wes Greve put substantial focus on building a new waste treatment plant.

This included bringing in representatives from Australian company that has developed an electrochemical wastewater treatment plant. This particular system was installed in Sundre, Alberta with a population of about 2,700 for a cost of $7.5 million which the Alberta provincial government picked up the tab for.

With Osoyoos’ base population nearly double that and up to seven times that number during the summer peak, the cost of the facility quickly multiplies.

A town official also told the Times Chronicle that it’s better to wait until a particular technology has matured to a certain extent because, “being an early adopter of new technology can end badly”.

As one of the former proponents of the electrochemical technology, the Times Chronicle spoke to Coun. Zach Poturica to find out if he still advocates this as the solution for Osoyoos’ current woes.

“We’re [council] still looking at what future options are and whether it’s that option or any option there’s different technologies that are out there, different services,” he said. “We need something that’s going to work, the difference we have obviously of where we are in the valley and we have tourists,” he added.

Poturica noted that he and other councillors were in Vernon recently for the annual Southern Interior Local Government Association conference where delegates were given a tour of Vernon’s waste treatment plant.

While it features modern technology and is comprised of both an indoor plant facility as well as outdoor lagoons, even it wouldn’t be able to handle the wild swing in demand that Osoyoos gets each summer as the population swells from just over 5,000 to over 20,000 at its peak, Poturica noted.

“The seasonality of it is one of the bigger issues and when something does change it takes a lot of time for our system to adjust to it and then we end up in the unfortunate circumstances were dealing with right now,” he added.

McKortoff, who also attended SILGA, echoed Porturica’s perspective saying the Vernon facility, while huge and mostly an indoor process, still relies partly on the lagoon system.

“And they said the same thing exactly had happened to them,” she said in reference to the Cell No. 2 failure in Osoyoos waste treatment process.

Porturica continued: “As we look forward down the road we will continue investing into some technology and infrastructure required to treat what is obviously a growing demand for us.”

But he also concedes that money is a key issue and grant funding from the provincial government will be key. “We’ve spoken to the Minister of Municipal Affairs twice in the last 4 ½ months and we’ve had two really good meetings,” he says.

With some grant applications in on the drinking water side of the equation he’s hopeful for some good news. “And then hopefully for us to come up with a solution that’s going to work long-term for us on the wastewater side.”

“It’s unfortunate that both issues have come up at the same time. This is not the situation you hope for,” he says, adding that council is very focussed on developing a long-term plan will be for both potable water and waste water.

“This year we’ve begun a water and wastewater master plan to for us to identify some of those issues, some of those long-term solutions and the funding requirements for us to move ahead with that.”

The town took the unusual step earlier this when council agreed to increase property tax with a special surcharge to help build a capital reserve for the ultimate replacement of the town’s water and waste infrastructure.

“We’re putting aside money because right now, those two systems are fairly underfunded on a tax basis, they don’t even cover the cost to operate right now so we need those changes this year.” He notes that the town is also increasing staffing on the waterside by two individuals this year and most likely will be adding additional staff members going into the next budget season.

“But hopefully those two master plans are really going to help us start going in the direction that we should have 10 years ago,” Porturica adds.

The mayor agrees, saying water as well as wastewater treatment will all be detailed in a water master plan going forward and is still very much on track. “And they’ll have to be sped up I think,” she adds.

“It’s not an easy thing, none of us would’ve ever wanted something like this but when these things happen, we have to deal with it. Part of our problem, as we know, is that we have to build things for 20,000 people because that’s what we get in the summertime but only 5,000 people for half the year.”

She also held up town staff for doing “an amazing job and they’re putting in long, long hours,” she said. “We are really trying to work positively together with the resources that we have and try to fix this as soon as possible.”

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