After several years' work and a very public controversy over funding models, the Whistler Waste Water Treatment Plant hosted an open house last week to show off $37.8 million in upgrades that have made the system one of the most advanced in B.C., if not all of Canada.
The upgrade has been in the planning stages since 2000, the result of Whistler's continued growth and the fact that the previous system sometimes struggled to treat sewage when the resort was at capacity.
But it took the Olympics and all the accompanying development to finally push the project through, Mayor Ken Melamed acknowledged last Thursday.
"It's a project that's been on our books for quite some time and it took a lot of collaboration, a lot of hard work to get it done," said the mayor. "It's one of our projects that was accelerated by the Games... at a cost of $37.8 million. It took substantial municipal resources, but it was made possible by a collaboration with the federal and provincial governments."
Construction began in 2008, five years after Whistler received grant approval from a federal and provincial infrastructure program. There are still a few stages of the treatment plant that are being tested, but all of the new facilities have come online in recent weeks and the plant is operational.
That includes new settlement and clarifying ponds, "digestion" ponds that use microbes to process waste materials, a system of blowers and scrubbers to capture and channel odors through wastewater to reduce the smell, a district energy system that uses the waste heat from the microbial digestion process to pre-warm water before sending it to the athletes' village for heating and a UV light system that eliminates the need for chemical treatment at the end of the process.
The other part of the process was completed in the fall, which is the treatment of the solid waste sludge at the new composting site at the entrance to the Callaghan Valley. One or two truckloads of sludge are trucked to the composter each day, where it is combined with wood waste, food waste and other biodegradable materials to create soil.
The province and federal government have contributed almost $13 million to the treatment plant project through a grant announced back in 2003. Whistler taxpayers are picking up the difference through an additional fee for homeowners and businesses. As well, the RMOW financed its end of the project by taking out a low-interest loan from the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
It wasn't all smooth sailing for the project. In February 2006 the municipal council of the day approved a private-public partnership (P3) to pay for the facility at the request of the B.C. government. Under the P3 agreement the same company would design, build and operate the system on a for-profit basis, potentially saving the RMOW money up front and during the long-term operation of the plant. However, critics said the P3 amounted to the privatization of water and wastewater in Whistler and pointed to examples where P3 agreements were actually more expensive in the long run.