British Columbia

'It's a fantasy': Vancouver's goal to make False Creek 'swimmable' by 2018 unrealistic, say critics

City council has voted to clean up the E. coli-stricken waterway, but its legacy of industrial waste and sewage discharge have some critics calling it a pipe dream.

Critics say several problems with the area make the city's goal far out of reach

Plans to make False Creek 'swimmable' will be costly and likely won't make the 2018 target, according to critics. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Vancouver City Council has voted to clean up the E. coli-stricken False Creek to make it "swimmable" as early as next year, but its legacy of industrial waste tailings and ongoing sewage discharge have some critics calling it a pipe dream.

On Wednesday city council voted to move forward with the Vancouver Waterfront Initiative, which aims to make False Creek clean enough to swim in by summer 2018. E. coli levels in the waterway are currently more than double what's considered safe for swimming.

"We have been directed to look into making it swimmable by 2018," said city environmental services manager Jennifer Mayberry, adding there are a number of issues in the way.

"There's a lack of natural filtration systems, sediment is contaminated from the historical industrial land use activities, and then we have E. coli contamination coming from illegal boat sewage dumping and also from the remaining combined sewer overflows," she said.

Mayberry says first steps include increasing enforcement of raw sewage discharge from boats and marinas.

But critics say the tallest task will be upgrading the decades-old outflow system near Science World that regularly leaks sewage into the waterway.

'Big dollars'

Much of Vancouver's sewage infrastructure, built as early as the 1930s, combines storm water with sewage in a single pipe.

Usually, the waste makes it into a water treatment facility before it's discharged. But when there's heavy rainfall, the sewage often overflows into waterways.

Combined sewage outflow systems, including the English Bay Interceptor Sewer, were built as early as the 1930s and combined storm water with wastewater from homes, businesses, and industry. (Metro Vancouver)

While plans are in motion to eliminate overflows completely by 2050, it's unclear if the False Creek outflow could be replaced any time soon.

"It's a great aspirational goal, and I applaud them for it," said Darrell Mussatto, chair of the Metro Vancouver Utilities Committee (MVUC) and mayor of North Vancouver.

"But if they make it [swimmable by 2018], I would be really amazed."

Mussatto said the MVUC will be working closely with the city to monitor the water quality in False Creek, but Vancouver's goal may not be feasible. 

"It's very expensive to separate the sanitary and storm sewers, [and] you have to do better monitoring of the boats," he said. "That costs big dollars."

Mussatto and Mayberry say it's unclear which contributes more to the polluted water — boat discharge or sewage overflow.

Darrell Mussatto says a revitalization of False Creek will take time and millions of dollars — a prospect that might not be feasible in the near-term. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

'It's a fantasy'

Meanwhile, frustrations are starting to mount over city council's decision.

"Until those systems are replaced, that concept of saying that False Creek will be swimmable — it's a fantasy," said Philip Davis, director of Reviver Sports and Entertainment — the group behind a proposed surf-park in False Creek.

Last year, Davis outlined plans for CitySurf — a floating pool at the east end of False Creek with a free public beach and a paid artificial wave pool.

Their goal was to reinvigorate the "worst" waterway in the city. 

CitySurf's proposed pools would float atop False Creek, using a membrane to separate clean water from the polluted water below. (Reviver Sport)

"The prospect of what the city is talking about now is quite frustrating, because we had actually proposed to create a process of continuous filtration ... cleaning the water through the wave pool, and pumping that water back into False Creek," he said.

At the time, Vancouver Park Board called the project a "bold idea" and questioned how accessible a surf park would be to the general public.

Davis says his group has moved on to working with other municipalities in the southern U.S., but contends the only way to make False Creek swimmable in the near term is with separate, floating pools.

"When I hear that they're talking about swimmability at False Creek — it kind of makes me laugh."

With files from Anita Bathe