Surfrider Vancouver Chapter

Ever wondered where Vancouver's wastewater ends up?

Treat Our Salish Sea

This Project is a collaborative effort between Obabika,
Georgia Strait Alliance and Surfrider Vancouver

In Metro Vancouver, the water that leaves our sinks, showers, toilets, washing machines and dishwashers goes to one of five wastewater treatment plants. The facilities treat the wastewater and discharge the effluent into the Fraser River or the Salish Sea.

In 2012, the Federal Government mandated that all wastewater treatment plants be a minimum standard of secondary treatment level by 2030. Four out of five of Vancouver’s wastewater treatment plants meet the minimum standard, but the Iona Wastewater Treatment Plant, in Richmond, is the last primary treatment facility. It uses an outdated form of sewage treatment, removing only fifty to sixty percent of wastewater solids. The plant discharges the under-treated wastewater into the Georgia Strait, at the mouth of the ecologically-sensitive Fraser River.

The plant is undergoing upgrades to meet the minimum federal standard secondary treatment level by 2030, but harmful pathogens, antibiotics, fertilizers, and microplastics can still escape secondary treatment

Tertiary treatment, the highest level of wastewater treatment, has the ability to remove up to 99.9% of harmful bacteria, microplastics, nitrate, and phosphates in wastewater. With a growing urban population and increasing influx of toxic substances being flushed down our drains, it’s crucial that the upgrades employ high treatment standards to handle the future of urban wastewater.

Throughout 2020, Metro Vancouver is in the planning phase of the upgrades. This is a rare opportunity for the community to advocate that a higher level of wastewater treatment, tertiary treatment, is utilized to ensure a healthier Salish Sea for decades to come.

Let Metro Vancouver representatives and the provincial and federal ministers of the environment know why tertiary treatment at the Iona Wastewater Treatment Plant is a key step towards a healthier Salish Sea.

Send your letter now!


The Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant was built in 1963 and is a primary treatment facility. The plant treats wastewater from a combined sewer system: domestic sewage is combined with stormwater run-off from the city. It is located on Iona Island next to YVR airport, and its 4km long jetty (the outflow pipe reaches a further 3km out to sea) is used by the public for walking, running, and cycling. The plant has expanded six times to compensate for population growth and treatment upgrades. In 2010, Fraser Riverkeeper and ten other non-profit organizations presented a submission to the CEC asserting its failure of the pollution prevention provision of the Fisheries Act to address contaminants being discharged from the plant, after multiple failed toxicity tests.

B.C. has a controversial history with wastewater treatment methods. The City of Victoria has until this year (2020) had no wastewater treatment at all, discharging untreated sewage into the Salish Sea. It was only in 2012 that Environment Canada mandated that all wastewater treatment plants be at least secondary treatment level by 2020, 2030 or 2040, depending on regional infrastructural limitations. The same regulations have been in place in the U.S. for over 40 years, and 75% of northern and central European countries have used tertiary treatment for over 25 years.


Who lives around the Salish Sea and Fraser River?

The Iona WWTP outflow pipe sits in the middle of the Georgia Strait, surrounded by the Salish Sea and neighbors the mouth of the Fraser River. These environments are critical habitat to a variety of native and migratory wildlife. There are now more than 125 marine species at risk in the Georgia Strait.

Endangered Southern Resident Orca

As of September 2020, the Southern Resident Orca population, a genetically distinct population of killer whale, has dwindled to just 72 individuals. Unless immediate action is taken to address the challenges they face, the population face a high risk of extinction.

Major threats facing Southern Resident Orca are a lack of prey (namely Chinook Salmon), noise pollution, vessel disturbance, and toxic contamination. As the top predators in the ocean, Orca consume the highest amounts of toxic contaminants through bioaccumulation. The Orca store these contaminants in their long-term fat deposits, used in times of food scarcity. Mother Orca pass high levels of toxic contaminants to their young through breastmilk.

Wild Pacific Salmon

The Fraser River is one of the most important salmon migration routes in North America. But in the 2019 salmon run, only one in 10 sockeye salmon returned to the Fraser River to spawn. Twelve out of 13 Fraser River chinook populations are now protected under the Species at Risk Act.
A study in 2018 by NOAA found pharmaceuticals including antidepressants in the tissue of juvenile chinook salmon around the Washington Puget Sound, which connects to B.C. coastal waters. The study found 42 chemicals in the fish tissue, part of the 81 chemicals found in under-treated wastewater effluent. The water tested nearby the discharge pipe held ten times the amount of chemicals than the water downstream.

Migratory Birds

The Fraser estuary is one of the most important habitats for migrant and wintering waterbirds in Canada. The Iona Island Bird Observatory is a protected area for studying bird populations, an important asset in the face of the continuing decline of bird species in North America. The Observatory has recorded up to 285 bird species in the estuary, the highest count of any one area in B.C. The birds feed on the nutrients in the facility’s settling tanks and on the sand during low tide. Seabirds, as top predators, are particularly vulnerable to ocean contaminants and are subject to bioaccumulation. Seabirds are often used as monitors for marine pollution.

What Are The Treatment Types?

Editors note: Wastewater treatment methods vary worldwide. The following treatments cover the most generally applied and basic methods.

Primary Treatment

How it works
When wastewater enters the facility, it filters through a screen that removes any larger objects such as sticks, sanitary items, shoes, guns – you name it, it’s probably been found in pretreatment. The water then goes through a grit chamber, which removes smaller pieces such as sand, gravel, and glass. The water passes through sedimentation tanks that remove further suspended solids (think grease, fats, and organic matter) as they settle on the water.

Primary treatment only removes 50 to 60 percent of the total suspended solids (TSS) and 30 to 50 percent of the biochemical oxygen demand contaminants (BOD). High-BOD contaminants are the measure of oxygen demand used by the organic matter that’s still in the water. Pathogens, antibiotics, metals, nitrates, phosphates, microplastics, and organic matter can all surpass primary treatment.

Secondary Treatment

How It Works
Secondary treatment uses bacteria to digest the remaining pollutants after primary treatment. Many facilities use the ‘activated sludge’ method to do this. Beneficial bacteria are added to the water to digest the bad bacteria, and dissolved oxygen is pumped in to keep the good bacteria growing. The water then hits another settling tank where the biological sludge (the byproduct from the bacteria digestion) is separated from the cleaner water, which is then discharged.

Secondary treatment plants remove about 95 percent of the organic materials in wastewater after primary treatment. But pathogens, antibiotics, metals and microplastics can still escape secondary treatment. A 2018 study at a secondary WWTP near Vancouver found that around 30 billion particles of microplastics were released into the aquatic environment annually.

Tertiary Treatment

How It Works
The main function of tertiary treatment is to remove all remaining pollutants in the water, namely phosphates, nitrates, pharmaceuticals, and microplastics. The treated water can be reused for industry, crop irrigation and even drinking water. Ultraviolet disinfection is a popular method for water discharge close to swimming areas, and Reverse Osmosis and Ozone treatments are effective for reusable drinking water. 

Tertiary treatment methods are energy-intensive, yet have been proven to remove 99.9% of bacteria in water.
Ultrafiltration methods have been found to remove 99.4% of microplastics from treated water, and Reverse Osmosis has been able to remove 83-99% of pharmaceuticals. Tertiary treated water could be used to rejuvenate marginalized habitat in the Fraser River, including those for juvenile salmon.