BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Think outside the box

One of Vernon’s most divisive issues, the suggestion of treated effluent pumped into Okanagan Lake, is about to gain legs again.

One of Vernon’s most divisive issues is about to gain legs again.

Some officials are suggesting treated effluent, or waste water, be pumped into Okanagan Lake instead of using it to irrigate pastures and golf courses.

For those recommending the move, they may not be aware of the history.

An outfall pipe was extended into Okanagan Lake in the late 1980s as a backup to the city’s spray irrigation program. Emotions ran high, sides were taken and political careers were built and trashed based on that single issue.

Fast forward to 1996, and discharge into the lake became reality as a wet summer sidelined irrigation and the reservoir needed to be drained. A similar scenario arose in 2008 and like before, those for and against discharge hired lawyers and launched a war of words. In the end, Mother Nature was agreeable and a discharge was avoided.

This time around, individuals updating Vernon’s liquid waste management plan suggest it’s time to revisit the issue because there isn’t a sufficient land base for spray irrigation, especially if the local population continues to grow.

But instead of taking the easy route and dumping waste water into the lake, why aren’t they thinking outside of the box?

There are existing opportunities to expand the land base, including the sprawling Coldstream Ranch. While the necessary infrastructure would be an expensive proposition, that would be offset by the available capacity generated for decades to come.

Beyond that, though, the city needs to learn from other North American communities.

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 and irrigation for 100,000 residential customers.

Over in Tucson, Arizona, reclaimed water is provided to 900 sites, including 18 golf courses, 39 parks, 52 schools and more than 700 homes.

Like Arizona, the North Okanagan is arid and we’ve faced potable water shortages because of hot summers and low snowpack. Additionally, everyone wants to live here and that is putting extreme pressure on the resource. Alternatives must be found to ensure that domestic water goes where it is actually needed.

If Florida can use reclaimed water for oranges, why can’t we use it for tree fruits, grapes and vegetables? Such a move could play a significant role in bolstering agriculture both economically and socially.

As new subdivisions are built, a dual system should be installed — one line with drinking water and another line with treated effluent for outside irrigation and toilets (six litres for low-flow flush).

Many people may bristle at the thought — primarily because of waste water’s original form — but remember that many of the local sports fields and golf courses are already part of the spray irrigation program. Cattle are grazing on grass fueled by the substance.

Now for the record, I have no problem with  pumping waste water into Okanagan Lake from an environmental standpoint. It is treated to extremely high standards and other valley communities have been doing it for years.

But I do object to wasting something when we know traditional sources of water will struggle with climate change and the region’s population will continue to climb.

Those advocating for a discharge point to the high cost of spray irrigation — $550,000 for electricity in 2011 — but that is peanuts compared to the multi-millions of dollars needed to meet evolving requirements for treating domestic water and finding new sources if global warming takes hold.

If we are to prepare for the future, the time to act is now.

—Richard Rolke is the senior reporter for The Morning Star…