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Small-scale water and wastewater treatment systems are musts in rural Canadian settings


January 22, 2016
By Kevin Wong

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At the turn of the 19th century, the steel industry was huge until environmental and economic conditions forced it to scale down infrastructure to make the mini mill. The development of steel thus became cheaper due to the smaller footprint, energy needs and capital costs.

My point? The development of small-scale water and wastewater treatment systems is a must in rural Canadian settings.

The tough thing is to run the pipe to the treatment plants. The water treatment plant is a long distance away, and so is the wastewater treatment plant. This procedure is not cheap, but because regulators understand it, they can help drive planning around these costly utilities.

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These multibillion-dollar giants are costly, tax intensive and often built based on plans for changes in growth or intensity of the area. We don’t take into account future changes in urban sprawl, policy changes like water conservation, energy efficiency or even over-strength chemistry conditions in our wastewaters that result in these changes.

Such projects also do not take into account changing regulations, emerging chemicals or even climate change. These factors are impossible to predict in some cases.

What is the solution? In the traditional regulatory sense, there is no solution in some jurisdictions: multiple homes sharing one septic system or well is difficult to conceive and even more difficult to police and regulate. These are the very small (public) systems that are common on many rural Canadian sites and very much so on many First Nations communities. These have fallen through the cracks after we have dealt with larger municipal systems and single-family systems via the plumbing code and well regulations. The middle ground has been forgotten it seems . . . for now.

The provinces have had the opportunity to manage this for the most part, but the concept of a decentralized small system is still a challenge encompassing regulatory issues, questions of inspector education/jurisdiction and training.

For the most part, it is our environmental and health inspectors who are left managing this grey area. But they may be trying to apply very large/municipal or very small system/single residence theories to the applications. Performance-based systems exist and this could be a solution. There are product standards that could apply and there are regulatory models to be adjusted.

Monitoring and responsibility for these systems can match the large-system models or become regulated, but they must be monitored by an operating authority responsible for the system.

Do those responsible need to be licensed MOECC-type operators? Do they have the training to manage smaller systems? What is needed for small, decentralized systems?

What we need is a blend of large- and small-scale concepts and regulations. We can cherry-pick some of the best practices from regulation. We may have to choose the middle gap between the plumbing code and well regulations and the larger-system policies and processes. At the very small end of the spectrum, the plumbing code can be somewhat upsized to handle multiple sites. A trained operating authority and an oversighting regulator from the MOECC, the health department, or chief building inspector also would be handy.

At the drinking water end, we have the technology and the people to manage these sites. Professionals can handle systems that are larger than one home, in a manner that blends the certified technology in the plumbing code with a certified professional on a permanent, monitored service contract overseen by a local chief building official, public health unit or ministry inspector.

The author is no expert in this realm, and your response and feedback is respectfully requested!


Kevin Wong is the executive director of the Canadian Water Quality Association.