One of the ubiquitous social-media images of Vancouver is the aerial shot of its downtown peninsula, with picture-postcard water surrounding it. But underneath some of those glittering blue surfaces is a sludge pile of bacteria and human and animal waste.
That reality hit home again as Vancouver prepares for what looks like a bad summer of beach closings because of high E. coli counts. Of the four beaches currently closed, two are close to Vancouver sewer outflows: Sunset Beach, near the Burrard Bridge, was closed June 29 because of high counts – anything over 200 E. coli per 100 millilitres of water – while Ambleside in West Vancouver was shut down July 19.
That has prompted some local politicians to take up the fight to clean the water by accelerating improvements to the aging parts of Vancouver’s sewer system.
It’s not clear yet what part is played by the fact that a little less than half of Vancouver’s sewer system mixes stormwater and sewage and that that mixture can end up flowing into the local harbours and the Fraser River when there’s heavy rainfall.
“In this day and age, we shouldn’t be putting any sewage in the water. It’s kind of gross that, in this day and age, we’re still doing this,” said park-board commissioner John Coupar, whose motion to take more aggressive action on the city’s water quality was passed at the park board this week.
His Non-Partisan Association colleague at city hall, Sarah Kirby-Yung, has a similar motion that will be debated at council some time this week.
“Vancouver does not intentionally discharge sewage, but we have overflow situations. We have had five overflows in False Creek just this year,” Ms. Kirby-Yung said. Vancouver isn’t the same as Victoria, which has pumped untreated sewage into the ocean for years, in spite of outrage from many quarters. (It’s now building a wastewater-treatment plant.)
But Ms. Kirby-Yung says Vancouver’s system still needs to be upgraded quickly, arguing that water quality is just as much of an emergency as climate change and the opioid crisis.
Both she and Mr. Coupar are making the case this week that Vancouver’s current rate of sewer replacement, where it is separating stormwater and sewer into two pipes, will take far too long.
Mr. Coupar says the city’s current replacement rate – 0.6 per cent a year – means that the system won’t get completely rehabilitated until after 2080, although the city’s official, stated target is 2050.
Vancouver has been working on separating its sewer pipes since the 1970s, after Vancouver city councils of earlier decades decided not to have a separated system because of the expense. About 36,000 of the city’s older houses also have combined systems. City officials require homeowners to upgrade whenever an owner does extensive renovations or builds a laneway.
In spite of that, the problem isn’t consistent. There was a panic about water quality and sewage in 2014, when there were 240 days of closings at various beaches in the Metro Vancouver region, including Vancouver’s popular Kitsilano Beach. But then there were relatively few closings from 2015 until this year.
The current closing of Sunset Beach, the beach closest to False Creek, is likely not because of some recent outflow, experts say. There haven’t been any recent rainfalls likely to have spurred an overflow.
But outflows do dump sewage into the dead-end inlet during the winter.
That, combined with boaters dropping their garbage and sewage in the water, along with the city’s large goose and dog populations, as well as warm summer weather that helps bacteria grow, have likely all contributed, they say.
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