Steeves: Wastewater discharge into waterways needs more scrutiny

In a sense, Jeff Curtis is a fairly typical scientist. He’s mild-mannered and self-effacing and he is careful about the words he uses in describing his research.

In a sense, Jeff Curtis is a fairly typical scientist.

He’s mild-mannered and self-effacing and he is careful about the words he uses in describing his research. He’s also very well-qualified for the work he does at UBC Okanagan, as head of the department of Chemistry and Earth and Environmental Sciences—which counts for a lot.

Instead of leaping to conclusions about how that research should be applied, he has simply described what’s been found in the three years that he and his team have been investigating concentrations of estrogen and other endocrine disruptors in the natural waters of the Okanagan.

However, I am not a scientist and I do not feel the same constraints.

They’ve determined that polishing treated effluent by releasing it first into a constructed wetland or with spray irrigation where infiltration will remove much of these compounds is safer than releasing any treated wastewater directly into natural lakes or other waterways.

I feel his conclusions should make us all sit up and take notice and to plan to change how we discharge treated effluent from sewage treatment plants into the very-sensitive aquatic environment of the Okanagan.

I realize we already have some pretty state-of-the art sewage treatment in the valley, but we are constantly evolving.

We already use 25 per cent more drugs than we did a decade ago, and we know now that the residue from drug use affects the natural environment.

We’ve been warned that many of the compounds from humans who take drugs for everything from birth control to depression pass directly through our bodies and are piped to the nearest sewage treatment plant.

Wastewater does not simply disappear into thin air once it’s treated.

It’s released, frequently into the nearest body of water.

And, the treatment methods of the last few decades have not included methods of removing residual pharmaceuticals, so those residues go directly into the river or lake nearest the plant.

All over the world, studies are showing mere nano-bits of those drugs are needed to change the sex organs of fish and other aquatic creatures, making it impossible for them to continue to reproduce normally.

The residency time of water in Okanagan Lake is something like 60 years, meaning these fish-harming drug residues will accumulate in the big lake for that length of time, until I’m sure they will begin to result in changes to creatures who live in the lake.

However, even those released into the Okanagan River from Penticton’s plant will have impacts not only on creatures in the river, but on every body of water downstream.

We know that dilution is not the solution to pollution. At some point we’ll come up against a wall.

Now, it’s important that we use what these local scientists, doing local research on our treatment facilities, have learned.

Instead of continuing to discharge treated wastewater into Okanagan Lake or Okanagan River, we must plan to construct wetlands into which these waters can be released for polishing before release into a natural aquatic environment.

To do otherwise is just burying our heads in the sand and dooming our grandchildren to a valley devoid of its natural inhabitants.



Judie Steeves writes about outdoors issues for the Capital News



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