Residents in Sooke are concerned about the imminent tax hikes to pay for the new sewer system.

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Brave men drink treated sewer water
By G.E. Mortimore for the Goldstream Gazette Opinion Column on May 9, 2001



Would you drink the purified water flowing from a sewage-treatment plant?

Probably not. I wouldnít. But I saw people doing exactly that. Four men, wearing broad grins, tossed back Styrofoam cups full of what they said was effluent. I didnít see them dip the water from the outflow pipe, but I believed them.

They werenít worried. The outflow water was as pure as a mountain stream. It had to be, because the plant was designed to release raindrop-quality water into a real mountain stream.

The display of effluent-drinking was a special stunt staged in 1996 for the cameras at the "First Flush" ceremony that marked the opening of a new sewage-treatment plant at Mount Washington ski resort.

The drinkers were executives of Hill, Murray, the Victoria-based wastewater engineering firm that installed the sewage-treatment plant, and the partner company with which they share the technology.

They donít drink effluent every day. That one-shot gesture showed their faith in their own high-tech process, which can be adjusted to filter out harmful stuff, right down to virus size. It is a proven process that has been in use in Arizona, Nevada and other dry places for 25 years.

We put a picture of the four effluent-drinkers in the paper Ė the old Environews that used to appear as a newspaper-within-a-newspaper in the Times Colonist.

That memory pops into mind every time I see ditches being dug for enormous costly pipes that will carry away sewage to be dumped nearly raw into Juan de Fuca Strait.

Why not, instead, purify the sewage from future subdivisions right near the dwellings that the sewage comes from, and use 90 per cent of the cleansed wastewater for flushing toilets and irrigating gardens, lawns and golf courses?

This is what they do in some U.S. places where water is in short supply.

Only the 10 per cent of cleansed waste water that is not used for toilet-flushing and irrigation flows away in miniature- sized sewer pipes.

Why not hold some cleansed wastewater in ponds, and use it to irrigate crops and refresh polluted or summer-dried salmon creeks? Why not do these things, rather than send new rivers of filth out to sea in old-fashioned big sewer pipes?

The memory of the Mount Washington effluent-drinkers conjured up a variety of thoughts about the politics of environment. I remembered the Mount Washington Four when I heard that a gung-ho development group in Sooke is asking the federal government for money to help pay the cost of outfall pipes that will dump sewage into Sookeís ocean waters.

They want Ottawa to spend our tax money on subsidies for wasteful use of water and pollution of the sea.

Such destructive proposals give an appearance of wisdom to the current "more-for-me-now" tax-cutting agenda, which apparently has majority support. If our taxes are to be used to harm the environment, we would be smart to give up the Sooke sewer plan and charge less taxes, right?

Half right. Give up the plan to collect and dump sewage in the sea with big pipes, yes. One provincial government office building in Sooke is already recycling its wastewater. Thatís the smart way to go.

But slash income taxes in the blind hope that there will be enough left for schools and health, and the cut will kick-start our economy? That isnít so smart. Citizens should insist that no future government of any political stripe will embark on that experiment before it has done a deep analysis and public debate.

Canadians as a whole pay more tax than Americans, but we buy some good stuff with our tax money. Health care that covers everyone. Longer life-span.

We charge a fair graduated income tax, based on ability to pay; and we offer generous public support to promising job-making inventions, like B.C.ís Ballard fuel cell engine. Both the provincial NDP and the federal Liberals have done that. Itís a necessary gamble. We canít depend on the private market to do the job of spurring research and invention. Venture capitalists prefer a sure thing.

Local taxes, by contrast to income tax, may not be so fair.

It begins to look as though people in the Western Communities are caught in a spiral of rising real estate taxes, which are inflicting hardship on poor seniors and young families struggling to pay their first mortgages, and single parents burdened with rent increases.

Sources of these problems may include galloping sprawl and wild-growth-at-any-cost, served by big sewer pipes in places where small pipes and water recycling would be cheaper in the long run.

Past study has already shown that sprawl spins out huge costs for pipes, wires, and roads. Future study may show that high taxes and sewer charges are forcing poor seniors and young families to sell their houses and land cheaply to developers.

Study may show that developers themselves could make more money infilling downtown and building high-density mixed-use satellite centres on rail corridors. It may show that most "new jobs" in big-box stores are taken by people who commute from outside.

Election candidates need to tell us how they stand on these issues. Why not go ahead and ask them?



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