Cultus Lake Head of the Class in Liquid Waste Management Planning
Process that typically takes at least 5 years completed in 2
Cultus Lake is a quiet Fraser Valley community home to about 2,500 locals. Each summer, it transforms into a thriving tourist hotspot with 800,000 visitors descending over the course of the hotter months. Traffic can be so intense on a busy day that you may wait an hour to get into the small town. The population in the area is predicted to continue to increase significantly in the future.
Not surprisingly, the infrastructure of Cultus Lake has been strained with all this intense seasonal recreation. The lake is the lifeblood of Cultus Lake, and locals know it. “The lake is the town,” says Ehren Lee a Water Strategy Consultant with Urban who worked as Water Engineer on the Cultus Lake Liquid Waste Management Plan. “You can see the lake from everywhere. It’s very much a part of who the locals are.” Cultus Lake is also a habitat for fisheries and two species that are at risk.
Research revealed that the lake may be at risk from failing septic fields constructed close to the shore. Cabins and cottages built 75 to 80 years ago were relying on their initial hole in the ground, and there was limited assurance that wastewater was not making its way to the lake through groundwater. Furthermore, it was recognized that septic fields may not be the most appropriate way to protect public health and the environment over the long term, while also allowing the community to continue to grow and accommodate visitors.
In response to these challenges, the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) initiated a process to begin developing a Liquid Waste Management Plan (LWMP). Locals decided that it was time to draw a line in the sand and plan for the future of the lake. The LWMP is a system created 30 years ago by the provincial government that allows local governments to develop solutions to liquid waste issues that are unique to their community. The LWMP must protect public health and the environment, and the public and stakeholders must be adequately consulted in the process of developing the plan. This is an improvement over how things were done in the past, when mandated liquid waste management changes could come about suddenly. The LWMP process is set up to be more inclusive and community centered.
But, as you can imagine, the process is not quick. It involves three stages, a lot of reporting, public engagement, and work with various interdisciplinary teams. It typically takes around 5 years to complete and in some communities, it can be very contentious and take much longer. For example, Powell River is in the middle of a 13-year process, and Victoria is approaching 35 years on their process. This is why residents of Cultus Lake and the team at Urban are so proud that their process was completed in less than two years. Another point of pride is that their recommendations have set a local standard for wastewater treatment to ground that’s higher than any other in the province.
So How Did They Do It?
Ehren explains that the strategy to streamline the process was multi-pronged. They got a great team in place (specifically a project manager known for his efficiency), and then they set to work.
Respect Historical Conversations
First, out of respect for research that had already been undertaken and as an act of good active listening, the team avoided starting from scratch and re-asking the community questions they’d been asked many times before. They looked thoroughly at historical data and went from there.
“If you don’t have public support, you can get into a 35-year long process. We got the support right off the get-go with this method,” says Ehren.
The team began by creating and distributing a newsletter that acknowledged the community had spoken about this issue many times before. The newsletter contained a short survey to make sure the pulse of the community was captured.
Questions focused on what the issues were, what priorities people wanted to tackle, and asked specifically about what things hadn’t been spoken about yet that residents were worried about.
Go Where People are
Second, the team gathered more information by going where people already were and connecting with them the way they wanted to connect. They set up shop in a busy area with heavy foot traffic. They simply rented a tent, set up a sandwich board and prepared to talk. There were no big survey forms or fancy graphics – the intent was simply to listen. “People engaged thoroughly there,” says Ehren. “We had just a few simple questions, which surprised people, but once they saw we were truly listening they really participated.”
If It’s In the way, It Is the Way
When the team knew an issue would be sensitive, they addressed it head on.
“We wanted to avoid surprise last-minute decisions. In the very first committee meeting for example, we told folks straight out they were going to struggle with whether to expand the treatment plant in the same location in the village core. Every step of the way we were very open and transparent and defined issues that needed public attention. We were direct and said ‘Guys we’ve got to get real with this and have some tough conversations.’ The philosophy was, if it’s in the way it is the way.”
Having Great Partners Helps
Ehren says the FVRD and community of Cultus Lake deserve a lot of credit for how quickly this process was tackled. For example, they needed to schedule meetings with 35 different agencies as part of the work, and although that was like “herding cats”, he says they nailed it. “They were incredible partners on this.”
Now that the reports are complete, the next steps are to liaise with the Ministry of Environment to secure approval of the plan. The Ministry has already received the plan, so the team is hopeful it will just be about minor tweaks from here. Once revisions are submitted, they will be brought forward to the Board of Directors of the FVRD to formally adopt the plan. Urban will work to support the FVRD in initiating an electoral assent process to get local funding in place for the new treatment services.
Many people helped make this project a success. Some we would like to highlight here include:
Tareq Islam – Director of Community Services
“He was a master of 3 things: doing what the community asked, shepherding his team and giving us the space to do things for him.”
Steve Brubacher – Project Manager
“I would call him a quintessential project manager. He’s a go-to consultant for all of us to make sure projects are done quickly and accurately.”
Brittney Dawney – Engineer
“Brittney is an engineer at Urban. She’s probably one of our strongest minds on environmental and communication matters. We were so glad to have her on this.”
Taryn Dixon – Electoral Area H Director
“She is a great community leader on the both the warm fuzzy stuff and the tough stuff. She really ensured community voices were heard.”