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Flush with spin: Wastewater versus sewage in Regina

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Wascana Creek. Photo: Richard Gustin/flickr

Perhaps some of you have noticed a rather curious change in the nomenclature advanced by the City of Regina and adopted by both the Leader-Post and Star-Phoenix in the days immediately after city council approved the referendum for the wastewater treatment plant. You see, it's no longer a wastewater treatment plant, it's now a sewage treatment plant, and anyone who would suggest this has anything to do with water is -- at least in the words of both the Star Phoenix and Leader-Post -- "misleading" and "fear-mongering." Just prior to the announcement of the referendum, the City of Regina seemed to have no problem calling the wastewater treatment plant a wastewater treatment plant (See here, here and here), even referring to it by the acronym WWTP in internal communications. So what happened? Why is the City of Regina so concerned that it now be referred to as a sewage treatment plant?

As Republican political strategist Frank Luntz bluntly states -- in politics -- "words matter." The words and language used in defining and framing political debate can be both powerful motivators for action or used to defuse and deactivate public opposition. In the case of the wastewater debate, it is obvious that the City has determined that people will perceive a much greater stake in protecting public water than protecting sewage and are seeking to divorce the treatment of "sewage" from any and all association with water. Indeed, as Maude Barlow recognizes, water is different from other political issues in that people are "willing to go to the wall for it." The City obviously would like to take some of the passion out of this issue by changing the language of the debate, hoping you won't give a shit about your shit.

But while the City's rhetorical substitution is a clever ideological strategy, it utterly fails to comprehend even the most basic notions of hydrology. Despite the insistence of the City and its allies that wastewater treatment apparently has nothing to do with water, they are inseparable. As the United States Geological Survey (USGS) states, "we consider wastewater treatment as water use because it is so interconnected with the other uses of water." Our wastewater and sewage doesn't just disappear once its flushed out of our toilets or drained out of our sinks, that's the whole reason it's treated, so it can reenter the hydrological cycle and be reused and reclaimed for other purposes.

Indeed, even the City of Regina itself, through its interactive diagram of the wastewater treatment process, illustrates this cycle as treated wastewater is released back into the environment both through effluent discharges into Wascana Creek and through evaporation/precipitation.

To pretend that wastewater treatment has nothing to do with water is the real ideological exercise. While we can at least understand the City's desire to divorce water use from the water treatment process for PR reasons, we cannot say the same for the Star Phoenix and Leader-Post, both of whom have publicly endorsed the City's P3 build model. You would think the most basic norms of journalistic practice would have led these newspapers to at least consult with a water specialist before their wholesale embrace of this misleading and flawed argument.

Simon Enoch is not a trained Hydrologist but at least talked to one before publishing his opinion.

Photo: Richard Gustin/flickr

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