Sechelt mayor pitches solutions to tough audience in Victoria

Written By Rob Shaw

When Sechelt mayor John Henderson took office last November, one of his first tasks was to sign a local state of emergency order due to a shortage of drinking water. Since then, he’s been working to find at least some short-term solutions to his district’s water woes.

That led Henderson to the halls of the B.C. legislature this week, where he was passing out his self-written “solution papers” to provincial ministers to drum up whatever support he could get on his district’s key issues, like the pressure on the drinking water supply due to population growth and climate change.

“I’m here to provide solutions,” he told Northern Beat in an interview.

“What I expect of people is to respond to it, don’t criticize. If you’ve got a better idea, I want to hear it, I’m all ears. But I don’t want to be coming back here in a year going, dammit why didn’t I push harder?”

Sechelt group gets non committal response from ministers

The reception from New Democrats has been polite, but tepid.

Mostly “thank-yous” from ministers, without commitments to do anything on district requests for water infrastructure, improvements to BC Ferries service and a long-discussed local highway project.

Henderson isn’t sure what to make of the response.

The local MLA, Nicholas Simons, is a veteran New Democrat. He’s set to retire next year. But even when Simons sat in John Horgan’s cabinet, the funding and projects for Sechelt just didn’t materialize to meet demand, said Henderson.

Henderson, his council, and Powell River Mayor Ron Woznow spent the past week walking the thin line between being polite and insistent in lobbying the provincial government for support.

“I’m not going away — others might like me too, but I’m just interested in solving things,” said Henderson. 

“I don’t care who gets credit for it. I don’t want to make anybody look bad.”

Mayor seeks $10 million for short-term solution to water shortage

Sechelt’s long-term solution to its water shortage will likely be new reservoirs, such as those proposed by the shíshálh Nation. But those could take years. 

In the meantime, the mayor said he’s seeking $10 million from the province to help pump treated sewage water from the Sechelt Water Resource Centre into Chapman Creek.

“It is clean enough we could drink,” Henderson said of the treated water, which is currently discharged into the ocean. 

“I need water next summer. I can’t wait three years.”

John Henderson

“We put it in the creek, which supplements the flow. It’s clean enough. It’s not about putting crappy water in the creek. It’s clean.”

That extra water for the river could allow more to be held back up in Chapman Lake, behind the local weir, which would mean more drinking water for the community, said Henderson.

The province could preserve even more water if it authorized a reduction in environmental flow levels for the river during months when fish aren’t present, allowing it to be stored in the lake when fish do spawn, said Henderson.

“It’s entirely do-able,” he said.

Resource Stewardship minister open to good ideas

The changes would require approval from Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Minister Nathan Cullen, who told Northern Beat he’s asked his ministry to research whether pumping treated sewage effluent into rivers is workable.

“Ultimately, you don’t want to expose any rivers to something that would be unsafe,” he said. “But (I’m) open to this point, hearing all kinds of ideas, especially when they’re endorsed by local support and good science.”

Cullen said he’s heard “some really good ideas” from Sechelt’s local government, but they would require consultation and approval by local First Nations and the federal government as well. The Sunshine Coast Regional District controls the Chapman water system.

“(I’m) open to … hearing all kinds of ideas, especially when they’re endorsed by local support and good science.”

Nathan Cullen

Henderson said there is abundant local groundwater to be tapped, but the provincial approval process is lengthy.

“We have so many wells and so much water and groundwater but there’s a three-year permitting process,” he said. “I need water next summer. I can’t wait three years.”

Additional ship needed to ease BC Ferries delays, cancellations

The mayor also pitched Transportation Minister Rob Fleming on the district’s other big file: BC Ferries service.

Sechelt, like many coastal communities, has major complaints about the delays, cancellations, lineups and overall fragility of the coastal ferry system, which has been exacerbated by ageing ships and crew shortages.

The system is so short-staffed that when one BC Ferries crew member got into a car accident during the Labour Day long weekend it resulted in eight cancelled sailings between Earls Cove and Saltery Bay due to insufficient crew.

“The (current) vessel’s end of life is 2032 … and we don’t have any real backup.”

John Henderson

Henderson said he wants BC Ferries and the province to purchase a used ferry with the capacity to carry 200 cars on the Langdale to Horseshoe Bay route, which could allow for hourly sailings and reduce backlogs.

“We don’t have the capacity,” said Henderson, who served on the BC Ferries board from 2004 to 2008. “The (current) vessel’s end of life is 2032, but as it gets towards that it starts breaking down more often and we don’t have any real backup. We need more capacity anyways.”

Henderson said he received a polite but muted response from Fleming, both on BC Ferries and also a new highway for the Sunshine Coast.

Transportation minister cautious on new ferry proposal

Although the province has discussed a new highway for almost thirty years, the most recent proposal would push the route into two residential areas, along with hard turns and steep inclines in some sections, said Henderson.

He’s demanding a better route, which would go through both First Nations territory and Crown land, but could cost more than $400 million.

Fleming said he’s concerned about the cost.

“What we did is put a whole bunch of options on the table… and he favours a very, very expensive option. So, I’ll leave it at that,” said Fleming.

“But I think his community is really happy we’re doing the study and leading to costed options. Large stretches of the existing highway are in good shape and are beautiful because they are down the coast.”

On Henderon’s proposal to purchase a used ferry, Fleming said, “I had a meeting with [Henderson] and he let me know he’d scheduled a meeting with the CEO of BC Ferries and I said you should talk about [the new ferry proposal].”

But Fleming also expressed caution, noting last time BC Ferries bought a used boat — a $12.6 million vessel in 2017 from Greece, renamed the Northern Sea Wolf  — it ended up massively over budget and delayed in getting up-to-speed.

“We’ve done that once before and it didn’t work out that well.”

Rob Fleming

The noncommittal answers from the province on water, ferries and transportation have become a familiar position for the Sunshine Coast. Sechelt is getting used to it, said the mayor.

“Why do we have to go through several layers of approvals, and in some cases, wait two or three years when we’re running out of water?” he asked. “This is crazy.”