Will water play a factor in Kelowna election? - InfoNews

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Will water play a factor in Kelowna election?

October 18, 2018 - 5:00 PM

KELOWNA - If water was a bigger part of the campaign leading to Saturday's municipal election, the discussions on who to vote for might have taken on a different tone in a huge number of Kelowna homes.

“(Mayor Colin) Basran’s hiding in the toolies,” Black Mountain Irrigation District chair Gordie Ivans told iNFOnews.ca. “If it comes out that he’s going to take over the water districts, he’s going to lose really bad.”

Black Mountain is not only the largest irrigation district in Kelowna – serving 18 per cent of the city’s population and delivering 25 per cent of its water –  it’s the largest in B.C, Ivans said.

Combined with the two other big irrigation districts in the city (Rutland and Glenmore-Ellison), they provide water to 42 per cent of Kelowna’s citizens.

If it was a campaign issue that the city planned to take them all over – similar to its amalgamation with South East Kelowna Irrigation District on June 4, 2018 – it might at least tell us how much ratepayers support their irrigation districts.

“Our ratepayers back us 100 per cent,” Ivans said. “Our ratepayers have come back to us and said ‘don’t let city take over Black Mountain’.”

Basran’s strongest competitor for the mayor’s job did try to make this an election issue with a Sept. 26 press release lambasting Basran’s handling of the file. But it never gained traction.

“We met with Tom Dyas,” Ivans said. “Tom gets what’s going on. Leave it alone right now. He’s not interested in power game. “

Of course, this is coming from one of the people who signed Dyas’ nomination papers. Gary Zarr, chair of Rutland Waterworks was quoted in Dyas’ press release criticizing Basran’s abandonment of the 2012 Kelowna Integrated Water Supply Plan.

Perhaps the issue failed to resonate with the media or the public because it’s complicated, somewhat sordid and, as long as the water coming out of voters’ taps is clean and the cost doesn’t skyrocket, voters may not care.

But, it’s likely to be top of mind with 42 per cent of Kelowna residents next year if the city resumes its efforts to amalgamate all water suppliers.

There were actually 18 water suppliers using 48 different sources before SEKID joined the city. Now it’s down to 17 but it’s really the big three and the city in play right now.

So how did this all get started?

It dates back more than a century when irrigation districts were set up so farming could become viable in the Kelowna region. Up until 1973 – when the provincial government forced amalgamation – places like Glenmore, Rutland and the Mission were separate entities – and irrigation districts were controlled by their separate boards of directors.

In 1991, the city joined with the big four to create the Kelowna Joint Water Committee to provide common water supply standards.

In 2009 the committee approached the provincial government for grants so they could improve water quality. They were told they needed a coordinated plan.

They spent about two years drafting that plan, which was adopted by all five parties.

The full document is some 346 pages long and outlines where the water comes from, how good each water source is and what is needed to create a good, cost effective, integrated system.

It outlined an eight-step plan with a $383 million price tag.

But the priority was to complete the first three steps in order to get rid of any water quality advisories through things like ultra-violet treatment, chlorination and filtration.

BMID, Rutland and Glenmore-Ellison all had healthy reserve funds and set about doing that work.

SEKID did not have that ability.

The smallest of the four districts, it served a mere 6,000 households but had a huge agricultural demand so, with 5 per cent of the city’s population it pumped out 21 per cent of the water – and at rates some suggest were kept too low in order to ease the burden on farmers and orchardists.

The 2012 plan placed SEKID improvements at the top of the priority list but the price tag to get everyone’s drinking water quality up to provincial standards was pegged at only $49 million in the plan.

Colin Basran was a city councillor back in 2011-12 and sat on the Joint committee that drafted that plan.

But, after becoming mayor in 2014, things went sideways.

“It was a really solid plan,” Ivans said. “It made a lot of sense. But when they started writing for grants, (then city manager Ron) Mattiussi did everything under the sun to throw everyone under the bus.”

When the study started, provincial grants were available to irrigation districts but the rules changed so grants only went to municipalities.

The province required a Value Plan Study (VPS) be done before issuing grants. It wanted to make sure the most needed and most cost effective methods were being used.

By that time, things had turned sour between the city and the three irrigation districts who refused to participate in the VPS.

“We had a really good working relationship, or we thought we did,” Ivans said. “It’s going to take time for that trust factor to come back."

It got to the point where, in 2016, federal MP Steven Fuhr said the city risked losing millions of dollars worth of federal grants “unless they can get their act together,” going on to say “amalgamation is the only thing that makes sense.”

Instead of trying to force the irrigation districts to co-operate, the city went ahead just with SEKID and secured $49 million in senior government funding for an $86 million project that covers all eight steps in the original water plan. It fully integrates South East Kelowna with the city and leaves the old SEKID system in place to provide a separate water system for agriculture that doesn’t need the same level of costly treatment as drinking water.

SEKID customers, for awhile, were charged $20 a month to offset their $15.3 million share of the costs. That’s now a $32 per month levy per residential unit through 2020 when they will drop to the City of Kelowna rates.

Because of this project, and maybe because of the election, there are no current discussion about further amalgamation.

But, with the completion of the SEKID project in late 2019 or early 2020, that may change.

“This is much bigger than just drinking water supply,” Allan Newcombe, the city’s Divisional Director of Infrastructure told iNFOnews.ca. “Certainly, that’s a component of it. Certainly, with Glenmore and Black Mountain, those irrigation districts have large upland reservoirs. We feel there would be benefit to looking at those reservoirs and possibly change the regime of those watersheds.”

That could be to reduce flooding in the lower parts of Kelowna and to provide adequate water for fish, the said.

Ivans said they are already working with forestry on making improvements but Newcombe suggests that work may be more focused on water supply than on flood and environmental issues.

And, while there are interconnections between Black Mountain and Rutland in case of problems, Ivans did admit that Rutland would only be able to supply domestic water in an emergency, not agricultural water in the summer.

While Ivans portrays the city’s interest as “empire building” and says it sees the irrigation districts as “cash cows,” Newcombe argues there are mutual benefits to amalgamation.

“The City of Kelowna can’t force this (amalgamation),” Newcombe said. “Irrigation districts are the responsibility of the provincial government.”

That may be, but Ivans worries the city will try to force a referendum on his ratepayers.

Ivans said they chose to keep quiet about their differences earlier on, but that won’t happen again.

“Now we’re not going to sit back and take any more BS,” he said.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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