October 23, 2013

Town needs analysis of wastewater options

As published in The Erin Advocate

While visiting the Ontario Rural Wastewater Centre at the University of Guelph last week, I was reminded of how limited our discussion has been in Erin about how to deal with sewage.

From the beginning of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) process, people have advocated alternatives to a big, traditional sewer system, but consulting firm BM Ross never had confidence in anything other than the tried and true approach.

And maybe they are right. Maybe none of the smaller-scale modern technologies is feasible here. But instead of dismissing them, the SSMP should provide serious analysis of options that have been tried in other places. We’re not talking about exotic, untested schemes, but realistic scenarios, with full explanations of how they could be phased in and how the costs could be shared.

The assumption that one technology should service all the urban areas needs to be set aside. It might not be ideal to have a “patchwork” or a “two-tier town” (partial sewers), but the fact is we are already chopped up into neighbourhoods with totally different needs.

A mix of septic systems and other technologies could form a hybrid approach that would be acceptable for many decades to come. After all, our transition to municipal water mains has been going on for more than 50 years and it has a long way to go.

It doesn’t make sense to abandon millions of dollars worth of private septic systems that are working perfectly well, just so that those people can help pay for sewer service in other areas. There will always be some perceived unfairness in any transition, but the goal should be moderate cost and only as much disruption as necessary.

The next assumption to flush is that septic systems are solely the responsibility of the homeowner. Waste is a communal matter, so if any areas are to keep their septic systems, the Town must have an inspection system to ensure that they work.

If the Town or the CVC insists that all new (or replacement) septic systems in urban areas be Type IV (previously called tertiary), we would guarantee high-quality effluent, have smaller drainage beds and have annual testing through the building code. The system would cost the owner an extra $5,000 to $10,000, plus an annual fee, but that might be the price of avoiding big sewers.

It would also be ideal to have a waste system that is fully owned by the public. But if we can’t get sufficient government funding, it would be better to accept private investment than to do nothing.

Perhaps if we had a partnership with a company that guaranteed performance of their system for a certain number of years, the Town could have the right to buy them out once the system is established.

Maybe a traditional sewer system makes the most sense for something on the scale of the new 1,200 home Solmar subdivision. The company is prepared to build its own treatment plant. It could also handle septage from rural septic tanks, and the Town could tap into it with other waste, but only as needed.

Maybe certain neighbourhoods, or industrial parks, could be best served by a large communal septic tank, as is already done for some homes in Stanley Park. The new models can have air constantly pumped through the liquid in the secondary chamber, making them very efficient.

Maybe some areas could be best served by a miniature stand-alone sewage plant, such as the only already used by the high school and Centre 2000.

Maybe downtown homes and businesses (in both Erin village and Hillsburgh) would be best served by what is called a “small bore system”. Properties would still have a septic tank, but the treated water would flow to a public system of small pipes. Since they do not need to be deep in the ground, streets would not have to be torn up.

With the initial processing of waste still done in a septic tank, effluent could be treated at a small fraction of the traditional cost, or fed into a regular sewage line, and we wouldn’t need a sewage pipeline flowing out of Hillsburgh.

These options would help keep growth moderate within the existing urban areas, even with the intensification that the province wants, and lower the impact on the river.

All of this assumes that we can be finished with the SSMP. Regardless of the population limit that the study will impose, council needs to choose a strategy. Instead of an all-or-nothing decision, it could be a decision to do further Environmental Assessment of several simultaneous options, including retention of septic systems in some areas.