Community values must be heard

It’s true – the voice of a community is a powerful and inspiring thing.

I spent several days this week with members of the Powell River community, having been invited to speak at an event hosted by the Powell River Water Watch group. It was a truly wonderful experience in so many ways. Meeting such passionate people who care so deeply about where they live was quite inspiring. Even more so was seeing how these same people are willing to act on those passions to ensure that their community makes the right decisions for its future.

What was behind the invitation to speak was a proposed plan to treat Powell River’s sewage by partnering with the Catalyst pulp mill. Essentially, a proposal for ‘co-treatment’ would see the mill treat the community’s wastewater rather than it having to build an upgraded municipal system to manage its waste.

There are many questions and concerns around this proposal, but even more alarming is how this one option is being put forward without first including the residents in a discussion on how else wastewater can be managed. Wastewater planning is community planning. Deciding on a path without first considering how this decision fits into the overall community plan is foolhardy, as is making this decision without meaningful consultation.

The other danger of this ‘one track mind’ decision is that it ignores the growing opportunities that come with wastewater treatment. Management strategies that treat sewage as a resource that can benefit a community by turning waste into a renewable source of energy, nutrients and water, not just something to be rid of, are the way of the future. This attitude is already growing in a number of communities in BC – including Metro Vancouver, the Capital Regional District of Victoria, the Regional District of Nanaimo, and smaller communities such as Oliver.

The meeting on Tuesday night was a packed house, with over 150 residents in attendance. The questions asked were thoughtful and in the end the message was clear: we want to be involved in this decision that will affect us for years to come. I don’t know if the three city councillors who attended the meeting will act on what they heard, but they would be wise to, at the very least, involve their community more in decision making.

I have been actively involved in wastewater consultation processes in Metro Vancouver, Nanaimo and Victoria, and can speak to how when both sides enter into consultations with the intent of it being something beneficial, it can truly make any decision or plan better. I can say this was absolutely the case in Metro Vancouver, where over 2 years the Advisory Committee I sat on (along with 8 other committed individuals) worked with senior staff to create a better Liquid Waste Management Plan for the region.

The experience, knowledge and values that exist within Powell River, and so many other communities in BC, can only make any community planning process better. Ignoring community values is something leaders do at their peril, and to exclude them from planning processes will only result in decisions that sacrifice sustainable communities for short term expediency. We will be a better region and province when we stop viewing consultations and transparency as a road block to progress but rather the strongest path to healthy communities.

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