BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Opportunities expanding

Richard Rolke provides some thoughts on using treated waste water in Vernon

It’s obvious B.C.’s Ministry of Health needs to get with the program.

While the ministry has been firmly opposed to allowing treated waste water to be used on food crops, a consultant recently pointed out to Vernon council that many California tomatoes purchased in our local grocery stores have been irrigated in the field using the effluent byproduct.

And it’s not just the tomatoes you slice and dice for your salad.

California’s treated waste water is also poured on to apples, grapes, asparagus, lettuce, peaches, peppers, pistachios, cauliflower, celery and a host of other fruits and veggies.

On the other side of the continent, the Southwest Florida Water Management District serves five million people and 149 million gallons of waste water per day was reused in 2010. This included 8,000 acres of citrus crops.

The assumption is the B.C. government is so opposed to spraying treated effluent water on to crops because of potential health risks from coliforms. However, a study indicates there haven’t been any problems in California because of strict guidelines and secondary treatment.

“The results of this five-year study have indicated that use of tertiary treated waste water for food crop irrigation is safe and acceptable,” states the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on its website.

“No adverse impacts in terms of soil or groundwater quality degradation were observed. Conventional farming practices were shown to be adequate and the marketability of the produce did not appear to pose any problems. No project-related health problems were detected through medical examinations and the serum banking program routinely conducted for the project personnel.”

With health concerns addressed, American communities have expanded the potential uses for treated effluent. As an example, Tucson, Arizona, waste water is found at 900 sites, including 18 golf courses, 39 parks, 52 schools and more than 700 homes.

Here in Vernon, provincial regulations restrict spray irrigation to parks, golf courses and forage crops for cattle, but there is so much more that could be done.

“They need to recognize the value of our reclaimed water,” said Juliette Cunningham, a city councillor, of the Ministry of Health.

That means pumping treated waste water into our local orchards, wineries and vegetable farms, or insisting that new residential development uses it for irrigating lawns or flushing toilets.

The Okanagan is a semi-arid region and droughts have occurred before, particularly following low snowpack winters. The prospect of those scenarios is likely to increase given climate change and a growing population, which places pressure on our domestic water supply.

By expanding opportunities for treated waste water, drinking water can be preserved while there could be economic benefits as effluent could encourage agriculture at a time when people want their food grown closer to home.

Also, more uses for treated waste water means reduced chance of it being discharged into Okanagan Lake, something which has been extremely controversial in Vernon.

City officials, as part of their liquid waste management process, will lobby the provincial government to expand the application of treated waste water.

Given the potential benefits to the community and the experiences in many U.S. jurisdictions, it’s time for the Ministry of Health to revisit its policies.

Perhaps MLA Eric Foster needs to join the effort.