Septic Soap Opera

Commentary, Environment, Manitoba, Peter Holle, Water

Last week’s news conference by PC environment critic Heather Stefanson attracted considerable media attention. The topic was overflowing sewage lagoons in Whiteshell Provincial Park, one of Manitoba’s environmental crown jewels, made graphic by a short video shot by local cottage owners. It showed a sewage lagoon leaking into Dorothy Lake, with the outfall occurring, ironically, next to some oblivious citizens casting fishing reels into the water on a pleasant late July afternoon.

This troubling vignette brought a defensive response from various government officials in a stream of media reports. Don Labossiere, Director of Environmental Operations at Manitoba Conservation, pointed to the wet summer as one reason for the overflow. (listen to CBC radio interview here) He also suggested increased use of the park, campground expansion and more full-time cottaging has strained the lagoon infrastructure. Conservation Minister Stan Struthers explained that the Province was spending five million dollars to add new lagoon capacity in the Whiteshell. (listen to CBC radio interview here) Meanwhile he was diverting septic trucks to other lagoons.

The official subtext pointed to some traditional and predictable government responses, which all dealt with the symptoms, not the cause of this problem. One, perhaps our parks can’t handle so many campers (which contradicts the government’s ill-thought out policy to eliminate park entrance fees for two years). Two, is the potential need to restrain the number and size of cottages – too many full time cottagers with fancy new places and more showers and bathrooms? Third, move the problem around by sending the trucks that haul sewage to places with the capacity to handle the stuff. Fourth, perhaps it’s time to spend millions in new lagoon capacity.

As usual there is less to this crisis than meets the eye. Turns out this swampy soap opera is a tale of self-inflicted policy stupidity.

A few years ago, someone in department land figured out an easy way to help “save” Lake Winnipeg. They decreed that cottagers and campgrounds in the Whiteshell Park could no longer use “grey water” septic fields because there was a risk of leakage into the Winnipeg River system which drains into Lake Winnipeg. Grey water is the relatively benign water from showers and sinks as opposed to the more problematic “black water” which is raw sewage.

Properly designed and maintained, grey water septic fields are economic and efficient underground natural filtering systems that have been effectively used for decades. Almost everyone would agree, on the other hand, that “black water” should be trucked to water treatment facilities – generally open-air lagoons where after primary treatment, the residue is released into natural water systems.

Our erstwhile green policy stewards and septic solons obviously were never strong at math. Provincial campgrounds and cottages produce several times more grey than black water so several times more waste water must now be transported to existing lagoons. Our grey water banners forgot a critical detail – they needed to expand the old lagoons when they torqued up the lagoon load factor with a regulatory pen stroke.

Minister Struthers and his supposedly green NDP provincial government now get to pay the political price with the news conference lagoon cameo- overloaded sewage ponds spilling into normally pristine Winnipeg River.

The problem goes deeper than a few minutes of stinky video. In Manitoba it’s never wise to be offside with the cottage community, especially for entirely preventable reasons. Trucking waste water to remote lagoons has doubled cottager’s septic haulage bills from 60 to 120 dollars. No wonder. The ten-minute trip to the Dorothy Lake lagoon has become a 45 minute trip to the Brereton Lake lagoon. Worse, some suspect a vagabond midnight pooper dumper after discovering a fouled up shore line around Otter Falls. No surprise – an illegal shortcut pump out would save the hassle of a one and a half hour round trip.

So what needs to be done?

Take the pressure off the system by removing the ill-thought out grey water ban. Instead effectively regulate septic fields like other provinces successfully do. In Ontario, inspectors place dye into grey water systems to detect leakage and have the power to padlock cottages until malfunctioning systems are repaired. Alberta employs properly accredited contract inspectors to check systems; with strict oversight from government managers.

Ultimately, we need to eliminate the conflict of interest that occurs when the government regulates itself. In this case, the operator and the regulator of the leaking lagoon is the Department of Conservation. It gets away with being a substantial environmental offender because it is in a position to look the other way and not prosecute itself. This is why public agencies are usually the worst environmental offenders. We can protect our environment by transferring the operation of these lagoon facilities to a private contractor and then seriously policing them through a completely separated regulatory agency that has rigorous incentives to preserve environmental quality.

In the end, the leaking lagoon story points the way to smarter environmental policy. It’s not about finding an excuse to restrict cottage and campground development in our beautiful parks or panicking to spend millions for new lagoons. It can start with a stroke of the pen, now, simply by reversing the NDP’s ill thought out ban on grey water septic fields.