An overwhelmed wastewater treatment plant in Fernie won’t trigger the need to throttle building development according to the City of Fernie.
“We aren’t looking at limiting development,” said Chief Administrative Officer Michael Boronowski, who explained that staff were confident that they could buy enough time for the existing infrastructure (and existing wastewater policies) to be updated and improved while a longer-term solution is figured out for Fernie.
The current wastewater treatment plant and parts of the wastewater system is currently overwhelmed due to an overlapping series of causes, from population growth outstripping expectations, to failing infrastructure, to a lack of staff, and too much water that doesn’t need to be treated (like rainwater) getting into the system. The facility was reported to be open to the river in late April 2022 due to excess water, with the city discharging treated effluent into the Elk River for more days than permitted as a result.
Boronowski said that building development could continue at the same pace as before, with the city not taking any steps to implement any policy connecting development to the current wastewater issues.
Instead, the city will be focusing on buying time, with next steps being an environmental review of how much treated effluent the Elk River could tolerate, an application for a new permit from the province to discharge effluent – and upon receiving that permit – work to both reduce the amount of water going into the system, and work to improve the efficiency of the plant. Detailed information on these steps will be presented to a Committee of the Whole meeting on July 18.
There’s a lot of work on the horizon: Just completing the environmental assessment will take the city well into 2023, while how long work beyond that will take is yet to be determined.
In the meantime, the city has applied for a $6 million in funding from the Strategic Priories Fund (a provincial fund) to reduce inflow of water by replacing manholes, water lines, sewer lines, and improving roads that contribute to water runoff entering the system. The city also increased utility fees by 18.4 percent in April to allow for additional operating staff to handle the existing infrastructure.
“Further down the road is a very large scale and long-term liquid waste management plan, and that is a big piece of work that’s heavy on public consultation,” said Boronowski, explaining that the plan would determine how the city treats wastewater. It is not yet known if a new wastewater treatment plant is needed, but that would be explored in the liquid wastewater treatment plan.
The city’s facility on Cokato Rd is designed to discharge treated effluent into the river, and to treat water in ‘rapid infiltration basins’, wherein water seeps into the groundwater after being appropriately treated. It was that system which was the primary culprit at that end of the wastewater management program.
“Definitely the rapid infiltration systems are under-functioning, and likely not recoverable to their designed intent, and so we are treating and discharging treated effluent,” said Boronowski.
It is not unusual for municipalities to discharge treated effluent into waterways, but a full environmental assessment will determine to what extent the City of Fernie goes down that path beyond what it is already permitted to do.
A page on the city’s ‘Let’s Talk’ website, complete with information on what steps the city is taking to address wastewater, and frequently asked questions, can be found online.
The most recent building official’s report from the City of Fernie showed that construction values in 2022 was well ahead of the same time in 2021 – at least according to values, with almost $22 million worth of permitted construction as of the end of May 2022, vs. just over $10 million in 2021.
Meanwhile, population growth for the city has far outstripped expectations, while the ‘shadow population’ of the city (those not captured int he census) is estimated to be far larger than reported due to itinerant workers, strong tourism, and more people working from their holiday homes. In the most recent census, Fernie’s population grew by 17.1 percent in five years.
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