The provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure has announced a feasibility study for an alternate, emergency route around the Malahat highway.
It’s part of what the Ministry described as a “complete, comprehensive and co-ordinated look into improving traffic flow on southern Vancouver Island”.
“We know that southern Vancouver Island is one of the fastest-growing regions in the province,” said Claire Trevena, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure. “For too long, the infrastructure needs of the communities there have been ignored. It is time we start investing in long-term, innovative, multi-modal solutions to address congestion.”
As part of this work, the Ministry will explore the potential of emergency detour routes that could be activated in the event of a Malahat road closure.
In a News Release today (Jan.9) they say that they will “continue to work with stakeholders, including the Capital Regional District (CRD), to ensure all possible detour options are explored while making sure that environmental, First Nations and local community interests are understood”.
Colin Plant, CRD board chair, responded by saying, “the CRD will want to ensure the protection of the integrity of the regional water supply lands, which provide drinking water for much of our region.”
But the announcement has raised red flags regarding the concept.
“To my understanding, they are looking for a bypass route through the CRD watershed where the Sooke Reservoir is located, and that’s a big concern to me,” said Mike Hicks, Juan de Fuca Electoral Area director. “That’s where the drinking water for the CRD, including Sooke, is located.”
Hicks said water in the reservoir is “absolutely pristine,” and to protect the area and the water supply, the area is subject to restricted access.
“They don’t let anyone into the watershed, except maybe some First Nations people for hunting purposes, so opening it up and maybe having trucks rolling through there is a really big concern. Anything getting into that water is a big concern.”
The Sooke Water Supply Area is located northwest of Victoria in the Sooke Hills and supplies water to more than 35,000 people in Greater Victoria. The area is owned by the Capital Regional District.
The area has been in active use for more than 100 years and supplies nearly all the water consumed by CRD residents.
Despite the large size of the watershed, (8,620 hectares), the storage in the Sooke Lake Reservoir is limited and dependant upon water stored during the winter months.
The pristine nature of the area and the water means the CRD is not required to spend many millions of dollars on filtration and chemical treatment, Hicks said.
“We really have to appreciate how important this water supply is. With climate change, there are droughts in the area every year; it’s really important that we protect this water.”
Chris Foord, the vice chair of the CRD Traffic Safety Commission, expressed a radically different position.
“Given that we dumped 40,000 litres of diesel fuel into the river several years ago and killed a bunch of salmon I seriously doubt that we could do worse by putting an emergency bypass road farther upstream from Goldstream River,” said Foord in an email to the Sooke News Mirror.
“My personal view, as a transportation planner, is that we need an immediate bypass that can be opened up if the Malahat was to be closed for more than an hour.”
That position is not completely at odds with Hick’s point of view, although he continues to question the wisdom of a watershed route.
Hicks said he recognizes the importance of an alternate route for the Malahat, but his preference would be to concentrate on the 300-kilometre Pacific Marine Circle Route which stretches from Victoria to Port Renfrew, Lake Cowichan and Duncan.
“If the concern is an emergency route, then you have the circle route. It would take two hours longer, and it would need some work at areas like the Deering Bridge, but it wouldn’t be going through our watershed,” Hicks said.
“We’ll have to wait and see what they come up with, but ideally, protecting our water supply should be of the highest importance.”
The report on the feasibility of a temporary activated emergency detour route is expected to be ready by spring 2019. If a suitable detour alignment is identified, future engineering work could begin in summer 2019.