Dr. Jim Harding provides important information about Regina’s impact on the water downstream. It ain’t pretty.
QU’APPELLE VALLEY LAKES CLEANUP TAKES BACK SEAT TO NEW ROUGHRIDER STADIUM
BY Jim Harding
For decades Regina’s poorly treated sewage has degraded eco-system health downstream in the Qu’Appelle Valley. Regina’s refusal to priorize modernizing its wastewater treatment means that people sometimes can’t swim safely, eat the fish or even boat.
The wellbeing of cottagers and those that make the valley their home is being disrespected. And there is no excuse; for years Peter Leavitt and his associates at the University of Regina have shown the major role Regina’s sewage plays in degrading this waterway. Meanwhile, rather than biting the bullet and upgrading the system, Regina politicians prefer to make a multi-million dollar new stadium their highest priority. Out of sight, out of mind!
Metal contamination increases with the growth of agriculture, industry and urbanization. Most of the catchment area for the Qu’Appelle River drainage basin includes industrial exposure – e.g. a steel plant, oil refinery, fertilizer plant and potash mine near Regina. Metal contamination from erosion is increased by agricultural tilling, irrigation and use of chemicals; coal plants and waste incineration send metals into the atmosphere which find their way into freshwater.
Metal pollutants accumulate in lake sediment and eventually enter aquatic food webs. Leavitt’s research suggests that small aquatic invertebrates in the Qu’Appelle system “may have been exposed to damaging levels of toxic metals for 100 years”. This research concludes that “overall, potential toxic metals from urban and industrial sources accumulate significantly within invertebrate diapausing (dormant) eggs, while less toxic metals preferentially accumulate in the sediment matrix”. The more toxic metals include cadmium, chromium and molybdenum.
Sediment analysis suggests that 70% of the nitrogen pollution in the Qu’Appelle waterways comes from Regina. (Most of the phosphorous likely comes from agriculture.) This elevated nitrogen influx results in heavy algal blooms which can elevate to toxic levels. This excessive algal growth can deplete oxygen levels in lakes and result in mass die off of fish and other aquatic organisms. Pasqua Lake, the first lake 175 km downstream from Regina, is the most heavily affected. In earlier research it was estimated that this fairly shallow lake contained about 300% more algae than in pre-colonial times; currently it’s estimated to be 500%. Most nitrogen gets sequestered in lake sediment but nutrients are passed downstream when saturation occurs, first to Echo Lake, then to Mission and on to Katepwa. This is chronic as I write!
There are other pollutants from Regina. Environment Canada found personal care products, like aspirin derivatives and some antibiotics downstream.
The last time Regina made a major upgrade of its wastewater plant was in 1977, to include tertiary treatment, i.e. “clarification” to remove phosphorous. Thirty-five years later this is no longer “state of the art” and the City has fallen behind the treatment standards of other prairie cities. City politicians have had other priorities, like Harbour Landing and a new Roughrider stadium.
I have some personal experience with this matter. When I was on Regina’s City Council in the mid-1990s, meeting at a session on capital budget, I raised planning for upgrading water treatment. I was told in no uncertain terms that with property reassessment coming, suburban taxes would increase and most councilors would lose their seats if we dared include these capital costs. Councilors agreed in word or by silence and the matter was dropped.
I’m not privy to how this was handled during Mayor Fiacco’s term. City officials claim they have budgeted for the wastewater upgrade, yet nothing significant has happened. The City is now looking at selling its poorly treated wastewater to a potash company south of Regina, while another potash company has indicated it wants to remove water directly from the Qu’Appelle lakes. What would all this “pragmatism” do to the flow and water quality of the Qu’Appelle lakes?
So here we are in 2012 with Regina the only major prairie city not to have upgraded its sewage treatment. The cost of doing this has continued to rise and could now be as much as $200 million. In its 2012 budget the City only budgeted $19.6 million for wastewater upgrades.
Aquatic eco-system protection simply must be implemented quickly. However Regina’s present Mayor and Council seem to be trying to end-run the electorate by approving much more spending to build a new Roughrider stadium without sufficient public input. Mosaic Stadium has just had a $14 million upgrade to prepare it for the 2013 Grey Cup. Then it’s going to be torn down. The proposed new stadium will have about the same seating capacity as Mosaic Stadium. Its total cost, including loan interest and maintenance over a 30 year period will be $675 million. This amount does not include cost overruns.
The province will contribute an $80 million grant and the Roughriders will only have to pay $25 million mostly from corporate sponsorships. According to Regina City Council’s funding plan, $300 million will come from the pockets of Regina taxpayers, who will be required to pay a 0.45% increase in property taxes each year for 10 years. Forced to foot the bill, how will Regina’s taxpayers view spending the millions needed to stop contaminating the Qu’Appelle Valley waterways?
Mayor Fiacco justified announcing the new stadium at a Roughrider game, saying that “users will pay”, suggesting that raising the facility fee for games by $4 will cover the provincial loan. Yet only $100 million of the total $675 million will likely come from this. Sounding a little like Prime Minister Harper, who also sidesteps democratic due process, he says “we were elected to make decisions”, while ignoring that stadium upgrades in 1977 came after a plebiscite. When asked about the fact that general taxes will go up, a City official spoke of “delivering a quality of life in Regina”, drawing an analogy to public transit which, like the stadium, is not used by everyone.
BREAD AND CIRCUSES
What about quality of life downstream from Regina’s effluent? What about municipal responsibility? When you go to the City’s web page there’s mention that an upgrade of sewage treatment will be required by 2016 (province) and 2020 (federal), yet no government grants are forthcoming for this. Why is the province spending $80 million for a Regina stadium and ignoring Regina’s sewage pollution?
The City is not stringently lobbying for such assistance. If anything it leaves the impression that the main problem with sewage treatment is persisting odour. It doesn’t mention its role in polluting the Qu’Appelle Valley lakes; this can reinforce disinformation such as the claim that “the lakes have always had high algae.” Based on a 1999 report it even alleges that “the City is a leader in treating wastewater”. Tell that to the residents and cottagers living along Pasqua or other Qu’Appelle Valley lakes.
The City’s diagram on waste treatment highlights its sediment removal, aerated lagoons, clarification and UV disinfecting and then ends abruptly, showing only an arrow for the discharge of its poorly treated effluent into Wascana Creek. For those living downstream this is where the contamination begins.
How did protecting eco-system health and a major recreational waterway become less important than a new football stadium? Is bread and circuses being allowed to squeeze out the quest for clean water and sustainability? We only can hope that this matter gets raised during Regina’s fall election.