The Status Quo for Hole-in-the-Wall is Not Possible.

I was surprised to see a majority of people responding negatively to the Alberni Valley News poll on making the Hole-in-the-Wall a tourist attraction. A convincing majority are against it. But a poll on something like this is mostly answered by people who haven’t given the issue any thought, or looked into the issues. Still, it is daunting. Something needs to be done whether the majority is against it or not.

I Googled Hole-in-the-Wall to see how many sites promoted it. I stopped counting sites mentioning Hole-in-the-Wall at 50. They include, the Chamber of Commerce, a three hiking apps, Trip Advisor, Flickr, several blogs, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, and many, many more. There is even a Chinese language site featuring it. Word-of-mouth is also an important factor in the popularity of the site. Closing the attraction without notifying all these sites would result in a lot of unhappy visitors, and damage to Port Alberni’s fragile reputation for tourism.

Crowds start in April and go into October at both entrances. They are regularly plugged up with vehicles, with the overflow going into Coombs Country Candy. Erosion, trampling and garbage are also an issue.

Ask the RCMP how many accidents, near misses, and incidents have happened around Coombs Country Candy, and the Black Powder Range Road. Then there are the people who find no parking and park at the candy store. Then they scamper across the highway, some taking chances with the traffic because of their impatience.

It’s not just the Hole-in-the-Wall that is the attraction, although it is a pretty good name. Across the road we have a lookout, a trail network, downhill mountain bike courses, and a starting point for ATV adventures. Also, Coombs Country Candy is definitely part of the attraction. It is a wonderful spot to relax after any of these activities. The owner, Murray Lawlor, tells me it is very much a part of the success of his business. But he worries about the risks that people who park at Coombs Country Candy take when they cross the highway.

It is high time that the Regional District, Mosaic, Highways, and Lawlor sit down and come up with a plan. Investment is necessary. To Mosaic, I say that there may be a way to lease some property and therefore get some revenue from the land, perhaps from admission charges. Those same admission charges could also pay for the investment in parking, way-finding, and maintenance. Perhaps also, a resort developer could work with the parties to add value to the area.

It is easy to throw out ideas. Perhaps some of them will spark an idea in someone’s head, who is better positioned than I am to make things happen. Leading public opinion is an important quality of leadership. I have to trust that our leaders agree. But I think something has to change, because the alternative is increased degradation of the attraction itself.

A Wastewater Tour Not Wasted

The Estuary of the Somass River is a very special place. It has been part of the lifeblood of this valley since time immemorial. And in a time when the salmon populations in this river are at historic lows any construction activity occurring within the remaining 30% of the original estuary should of concern to every citizen of the valley, including this one. Admittedly, it is late in the game to be taking such an interest, I still thought it would be a good topic to investigate.

 A week ago, Jim Wright and I met Ken Watson at the gate to the road into the wastewater treatment plant under construction on the Somass Estuary. He is the Acting City Engineer. For those who don’t know, Ken has spent most of his career with the City, mostly as the City Engineer, and Chief Administrator. After retirement he was asked to return to act temporarily as Engineer until a permanent one was in the job.  So we had an experienced guide to give the tour of the new wastewater treatment plant.

These hoses or booms pump air down into the weighted diffusers, or bubble-makers that oxygenates the water. Pond levels will rise and the bullrushes will die. Currently both bullfrogs and sunfish live in the ponds. But the winter ducks will very likely return and use the ponds. The gulls will use the new ponds too.

After donning our safety gear, Ken led us through the process. The current wastewater from the city flows through a very large pipe under Somass River and then underground to the currently operating lagoon. From there, a new pipe will extend from the old lagoon to the new lagoon and then into the new screening building. There the water goes through a ½ inch screen. It removes the hard bits like personal products, rags and other things that inadvertently end up in the sewer system. The screened debris ends up in the landfill. The water then goes into a much larger lagoon once used by the paper mill and bought by the city a couple of years ago for this purpose. It has eight times the volume that the current lagoon has. Watson says, “The new lagoon is more cost-effective, and effective”.

The UV building where the water is irradiated with ultraviolet light killing parasites, and pathogens. The 4 columns in the lagoon go 20 meters deep through thousands of years of river deposits. During the project an artifact was found that was 3500 years old. on those pylons a pump will be located that will draw water from the lagoon through to the UV building.

Across the lagoon are a series of floating booms. These will be part of the aeration system. Hanging from the booms, there will be 485 weighted diffusers which pump air bubbles up through the water. The oxygen is used by the fecal bacteria to render the “poop” harmless. I asked Watson ‘”What happens to all the organic matter? Doesn’t it turn to sludge?” The answer I got was that very little sludge was actually produced. Even the old lagoon dredge didn’t produce much sludge. In his career at the City he only remembers it being dredged 3 times. The organic matter is oxidized, that is “burned” by the bacteria releasing the carbon as carbon dioxide.

After the aeration treatment, the water is pumped into another building where it is irradiated with ultra-violet (UV) light. This kills all any pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses, left in the water. UV radiation uses no chemicals, and little energy. So it is highly effective.

The mill effluent lagoon was divided in half with this barrier. The cement culverts are to maintain an equal water level in each pond. This also gives you an idea of how high the operating water level will be.

Once irradiated, the water finished treatment. it is pumped 800 meters out into the inlet. Watson is confident that the water will easily meet the current standards set down by the Province and Federal Government. The effluent will be far cleaner than the current lagoon, which has needed replacement to meet current wastewater standards for many years.

This is one end of one of the aeration booms. The winch is to take up the slack when the water level is higher.

This has been a lengthy project. Construction has been ongoing for almost two years. Although it appears to be nearing completion, it is not expected to be in operation until early summer next year. Currently, the electrical power required to operate the system is being upgraded. Also 8 pylons now emerge from the pond. They are to support two pump stations needed to pump the water to the UV operation. Then the new sewage inflow needs to be attached to the existing inflow for the current lagoon. This needs to be done during a “fisheries window”, that is at a time where there is little impact on fish. That window is next spring. So by next summer after a couple of tests, it will be in operation.

Inside the screening building, Ken Watson is removing the cover of the screens.

The next step is deciding what to do with the old lagoon. Its construction took up highly productive salmon habitat. The obvious solution would be to re-establish it. However design objectives, methods and techniques are not as obvious. And it will cost money. Also, it is a popular place for the public to go for walks. So, some do not want to see the road access around this lagoon go away. Others want better connectivity for the smolts coming down to the ocean to linger in the estuary while they adapt to salt water. This would mean creating a gap in that road and also perhaps a defined channel for the water from the river to flow into Shoemaker Bay. There are a lot of alternatives. And the City has committed to a public engagement process before the design stage. That is expected to start in the New Year. So if you are one of those walkers, naturalists, birders or dog lovers who frequent the area, keep an eye out for public notices on this. And voice your opinion.

These screens won’t look so clean in a year or so!

Sources, and Background:

  1. Toprack Home Page Wastewater Engineering
  2. Wastewater Treatment Configurations and Process
  3. Ha-Shilth-Sa Infrastructure project aims to improve salmon habitat
  4. City’s Wastewater Treatment Plant Projected to Cost $37.9 Million