One umbrella association is making regulatory headway in serving the training and professionalism needs of diverse groups of wastewater professionals.
From her main office in Edmonton, Alberta, Lesley Desjardins keeps busy working with the onsite wastewater professionals and regulators covering nearly half of Canada. From the Pacific Ocean, across mountains and a desert to Hudson Bay, it is her job to coordinate how those in the industry protect public health and the environment. Members include all areas of the industry, from designers and installers to pumpers, regulators and suppliers.
Desjardins is the executive director of the Western Canada Onsite Wastewater Management Association (WCOWMA). The group covers the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
How much of your effort involves trying to standardize across the provinces?
Desjardins: That’s really important in Canada and one of the reasons we formed WCOWMA, to standardize training across western Canada and allow the western provinces to share training and infrastructure resources.
We have federal and provincial agreements on recognition of equivalent training, such as the Agreement on Internal Trade (an intergovernmental agreement covering all agencies of provincial and federal governments). Somebody certified in onsite wastewater from one province that requires it can go to any other province that requires it and have their certification recognized. So it’s really critical that training is standardized, because contractors can come from different regulatory frameworks with differing training requirements. Standardizing training requirements will help mitigate potential issues.
How did this all come together?
Desjardins: We started with the Alberta Onsite Wastewater Management Association (AOWMA), the largest organization in western Canada, which incorporated in 1998. By the mid-2000s, the Alberta association had so many members from British Columbia and Saskatchewan that we decided to create an umbrella organization. Servicing them all from Alberta just wasn’t getting our members in other provinces the best representation, so we incorporated WCOWMA federally in 2008 and set up a chapter in each province with its own autonomous board of directors. Each is financially independent from the others.
WCOWMA allows the provinces to share information and resources such as curriculum and infrastructure like a shared website and phone system, while giving us the ability to combine the voices from all the provinces for advocacy purposes. There is staff in each province and I manage all four chapters. We have four contracted staff, one who deals with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, one for British Columbia, and two in Alberta. We’re pretty busy.
Each of the boards meet every six to eight weeks and I attend either in person or virtually, which makes my life a little easier. As each provincial association becomes larger, they will require their own operations manager. We’re not there yet.
What are the membership numbers?
Desjardins: We have two membership classes. There are voting corporate members (companies), and nonvoting under-corporate members (employees of member companies). Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia are all growing, and right now B.C. is enjoying about a 20 percent growth rate in membership per year. Alberta has 568 corporate, 320 under-corporate members; British Columbia has 204 and 105; Saskatchewan has 60 and 25.
Manitoba is a little different. We don’t actively recruit memberships and collect member dues because they have an onsite group, the Onsite Wastewater Systems Installers of Manitoba, and we don’t want to hinder their ability to attract members. We focus on advocacy with the government and the promotion of homeowner education there. We have provided support to them over the years such as training and workshops.
How do you interact with regulators across the provinces?
Desjardins: I regularly meet with them either in person or in virtual meetings and I sit on a variety of committees in the provinces. Probably every six weeks or so I’m traveling from one group to another. During the convention season in January through April, there’s a significant amount of intraprovincial work that may require travel throughout Canada and sometimes the United States.
British Columbia has been particularly busy in the last year because we have submitted training curriculum to their certification body for accreditation. Over the last year-and-a-half, some of the training has been adapted from other provincial training programs, some has been developed in B.C., and some was adapted through our partnership with NAWT (National Association of Wastewater Technicians). We partnered with them on some of their O & M and inspection training. B.C. also adopted a new Standard Practice Manual in 2015, so there has been a learning curve related to that.
In Alberta, the Safety Codes Council adopted a new Standard of Practice that became effective in January. The transition to that will go on for the next year. All certified contractors in Alberta are required to participate in continuing education. The AOWMA is currently delivering that training throughout the province. More than 1,300 contractors will be trained during 2016 and early 2017.
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health has always worked closely with Alberta and adopted its training program in 2009 so the guidelines are very similar. Training isn’t mandatory there, but the industry is very keen to see that. The regional health officers who do the system inspections are pushing for it as well. There is some hesitancy at the ministry level. The population is only about 1 million people and the onsite industry is quite small. But about 150 contractors and health officers have voluntarily participated in certification training; that’s a significant number.
Manitoba has had no one at the ministry level for onsite wastewater for about three years. Last year, Manitoba Conservation hired a new manager in that capacity. He has a background in onsite wastewater, worked as an inspector and did research in this industry, so he brings a lot of expertise to the position. Currently, we are in the process of sharing curriculum and resources as Manitoba Conservation plans for a training program update, making some changes to their continuing education requirement, and expanding access to field workshops. Certification is required in Manitoba, but they haven’t had their own standard of practice, and that looks like something they want to change. It will be interesting to watch and hopefully participate in that process.
How does representing such a broad territory complicate things?
Desjardins: You do see different types of systems from province to province largely due to geographical differences. The coastal areas of British Columbia are very much like Washington state, there are mountains in the east and west, but the interior has the Okanagan Desert and high prairie in the north. Alberta and Saskatchewan have very similar high prairie and forest landscapes, except Alberta has the Rocky Mountains. Manitoba and Saskatchewan have issues with heavy clays and a lot of lakes. There are certainly regional challenges with the types of systems that can be used.
Overall, the challenges and issues experienced in the industry are very similar from province to province.
What challenges are coming up for the onsite industry in western Canada?
Desjardins: We weren’t really impacted by the recession of 2008-09, but we are being impacted now. In Alberta, Saskatchewan and part of northern British Columbia, the oil industry is really depressed. So we’re going to be seeing people who work in private sewage in the oil industry, which is a different animal altogether, moving to work in the residential sewage industry. That may create some issues because the design and installation of these types of systems is significantly different.
Whenever there’s a recession, there’s a lot more competition. That’s when you typically see things like underbidding jobs, which are not positive. It can lead to inadequate systems being installed. We’re anticipating that we may see some fallout from the fact that the western provinces are feeling the pinch of a recession right now.