Will $120,000 study save $4 million?
It hasn’t received as much coverage as it deserves, but the findings of the study on phosphorus levels in the Cheakamus River, released last week, holds significant consequences for Whistler and everyone who uses the river.
Phosphorus loading in the Cheakamus has been an issue since the 1970s, when environmental agencies began receiving complaints about excessive algae growth in the Lower Cheakamus. A 1989 study by the Ministry of Environment said that Whistler’s sewage discharge into the Cheakamus was part of the problem, although it noted "Even if Whistler did not discharge their sewage to the Cheakamus River system, there would still very likely be a nuisance algae growth on the upper reaches of the Lower Cheakamus River."
The main reason for algae growth, it was believed, was BC Hydro’s Daisy Lake Dam, which didn’t allow enough water in the Lower Cheakamus. But the debate over who is responsible and what should be done has continued for years.
An evaluation of the MoE study, commissioned by Whistler, questioned some of the methodology. But at the same time Whistler was preparing to expand the capacity of its sewage treatment plant, prompting suggestions from some corners that the river was going to be destroyed forever. At one point one group even listed the Cheakamus as one of the most threatened rivers in B.C.
Two years ago Whistler committed $120,000 to the most comprehensive study yet undertaken to establish, once and for all, the relationship between phosphorus discharged from Whistler’s treatment plant and algae growth in the Lower Cheakamus. The study says Whistler’s contribution is insignificant.
Water depth and phosphorus are the two most important factors in algae growth, according to the study. The Daisy Lake Dam, which hasn’t been spilling enough water, and Rubble Creek, which has a very high phosphorus content due to the area’s unique geological characteristics, are the main factors in algae growth in the Lower Cheakamus.
BC Hydro was recently ordered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to increase flow levels in the Lower Cheakamus. The phosphorus study should reinforce the necessity of that order, although there is still some question as to whether Hydro will comply.
Another outcome of the study may be that Whistler can save $4 million it had planned to spend on additional phosphorus-removing systems in the sewage treatment plant. The study found that even at buildout the amount of phosphorus Whistler puts in the river will be insignificant, and the difference the phosphorus removing system would make would be inconsequential.
Those findings put a number of things into context: the impact of the Daisy Lake Dam and proper water flows, the significance of Rubble Creek, and the level of sewage treatment already being done at Whistler’s treatment plant.
The $4 million saved, if the Ministry of Environment agrees the phosphorus removing system is unwarranted, could become part of Whistler’s environmental legacy fund. In that way the money would still be spent on environmental protection.
But there has been so much emotion in this debate that has gone on so long it’s going to be hard to counter folklore, even with scientific facts. That is what Whistler has to do now as it presents the results of the study to the various ministries, Squamish and BC Hydro.