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by Curtis Gillespie
The Wascana Creek meanders through the heart of Regina, flowing from the southeast corner of the city through to where it exits in the northwest, after which it ultimately empties into the Qu’Appelle River System, which, along with its valley, offers one of western Canada’s most idyllic prairie settings. It has been one of the city’s primary recreational corridors for decades, but over time the chain of lakes downstream of Wascana Creek had fallen into a less than pristine state, primarily due to the increasing presence of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water.
Nitrogen and phosphorous, of course, are two of nature’s core elements and are nutrients in water bodies, sustaining aquatic plant growth, including algae. Both are used in fertilizer, and nitrogen is not only used to help create or manufacture thousands of products, it also makes up nearly 80% of the air we breathe (just don’t forget to add the oxygen).
But that doesn’t mean nitrogen and phosphorous on their own are harmless. Used or disposed of in the wrong ways, nitrogen can be detrimental to humans and our environment, which was precisely the fate that had befallen the Qu’Appelle River system. The City of Regina knew this. And knew it had to save the creek and the lakes downstream by doing its part by reforming its wastewater treatment system. But funding was a major barrier. The question was how to square that circle?
It all led to a 2013 referendum, in which 57% of Regina voters chose to go ahead with a wastewater treatment plant upgrade through a public-private partnership (P3). Not that winning the bid was ever a slam dunk for EPCOR. Far from it. Even though the P3 was approved in theory via the referendum, EPCOR still had to compete vigorously for the contract.
The company won out and eventually signed what Vicki Campbell describes as a “robust contract” that holds EPCOR to various deliverables and reporting requirements to provincial regulators as well as the City of Regina. Originally from the Regina area, Campbell joined EPCOR as a senior manager for northern Alberta in 2010, but returned to Regina in 2014 after EPCOR won the P3 bid. She has been involved and on site since day one.
“In fact,” she laughs, “when I arrived in 2014 to start up the Regina business for EPCOR, I was the only EPCOR employee here! So I led the transition of the wastewater treatment plant and employees from the City of Regina to EPCOR, led the recruitment process and oversaw pretty much the entire transition of all the business systems, the vehicles while we were going through heavy construction. The whole works.”
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What “the whole works” entailed was keeping wastewater treatment going, while the refurbishment of many parts of the old treatment plant and the construction of a new plant were occurring. After construction was completed came the process of figuring out how to run them as one system through a substantial commissioning process. The build and opening took an impressive effort. As the Regina Leader-Post reported back in 2016, “It took the excavation of 275,000 cubic metres of soil, 685,000 construction hours and 1.78 million kilograms of reinforced steel bars, but Mayor Michael Fougere summed up the substantial completion of the wastewater treatment plant upgrade in just a few words. ‘On time and under budget,’ Fougere said. ‘Absolutely incredible’.”
But it is not the bid and build that remains the most impressive thing about the project, but rather the result and the manner in which it’s been achieved.
The Wascana Creek and downstream lakes were waterways in serious trouble. Algae was blooming. Fish were dying from lack of oxygen due to the heavy algae growth. The creek had a distinct and not at all pleasant odour to it.
This was all the result of decades of nitrogen and phosphorous loading from an inefficient and outmoded wastewater treatment processes along with nutrients from other sources such as farms and other communities.
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