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JONESIE: Kelowna won the battle but may have lost the water war

March 01, 2017 - 3:32 PM

OPINION


It’s hard to know if the City of Kelowna and Mayor Colin Basran truly got what they wanted this week.

For two years, they’ve been attempting a hostile take over of the city’s other water purveyors. They’re justified and have a strong case. But what happened Monday was either a big step forward or a giant leap back.

The City produced a report saying taxpayers could save $95 million over 25 to 50 years if we snapped our fingers and put the City in charge of all water. It’s actually much, much more than that. Water districts can’t get grants, while the City will likely get more than $40 million from the province in the next couple weeks. And it will keep pouring in because, well, this is water.

That money is important when the overall bill approaches $400 million over 25 to 50 years.

But that’s nothing compared to the water. Kelowna doesn’t have the greatest record with it. In the 1990s, the city had an outbreak of cryptosporidium and some areas served by the water districts — upwards of 20,000 people — just don’t or didn’t meet health standards.

Again: The water doesn’t meet health standards. If you live in one of those areas, you know: Southeast Kelowna and parts of Glenmore-Ellison constantly have to boil water.

No one talks about that in the glitzy-sunshiny-viral-Facebook videos about how great we are. It’s embarrassing. Of course the city responsible for our reputation wants to fix that. It should.

But here’s the thing: If you live in the city and you’re thinking the province should just fire these boards and expropriate their assets if they would risk human health to maintain political fiefdoms then that’s exactly why they claim the right to keep on existing.

They’re irrigation districts, built by and for primarily farmers. Latecomers subsidize irrigation for the beautiful vineyards and orchards in those Facebook videos. They know, or they believe, that if irrigation is just another folder in a City filing cabinet, they’ll be forgotten. Oh, they don’t know that for sure, but they’re probably gathering that from the result of every urban-rural battle everywhere at any time.

And events this week proved them right not to trust the City.

Here’s where we need some backstory. This situation has been developing for years and everyone recognizes it’s a problem. The five biggest districts — Kelowna, Glenmore-Ellison Irrigation District, Rutland Waterworks, Black Mountain Irrigation District and Southeast Kelowna Irrigation District agreed to work together in 2010.

In 2012, they all signed and agreed to a comprehensive water plan. With that under their arms, Black Mountain and Glenmore-Ellison got to work, spending plenty of its own cash to improve water quality, which isn’t nearly as much of an issue any more. Glenmore-Ellison should see more improvements this year.

Not three years later, after the 2014 election brought in new Mayor Colin Basran, he almost immediately began picking a new fight to bring the irrigation districts into the City of Kelowna.

For the water districts, it was a bizarre turnaround and a slap in the face. Basran, as city councillor, represented the City in the Big Five meetings. He recommended the City sign the 2012 plan.

Since Basran first laced up his gloves, the players have been through meetings, then mediation, then the province got involved and, according to the city, demanded this new plan which removed the questions of ownership and governance.

The City signed a consultant without going to tender and got what it wanted: A technical report that delivered the number — $95 million savings. (It’s an odd quirk of math to be sure: The 2012 plan figured $382 million, the 2017 plan $350 million.)

It’s hard to score this as anything but a win for the City. It takes control of Southeast Kelowna and if it gets the provincial and federal grants, it can take a massive step forward in immediate needs identified in both plans. Perhaps there’s a sense at City Hall that Southeast Kelowna is in the most need, while Black Mountain, Rutland and Glenmore-Ellison are in pretty good shape, so they can resume the takeover at some point in the future.

But that is far from certain. The irrigation districts have said very little publicly since Basran picked this fight. I hear privately they feel massively outgunned in a public relations war with a team of city councillors and a massive city communications department.

I also hear privately that Monday’s events have emboldened the remaining three. Most of their water is good or will soon be and as long as Interior Health is happy with water quality, there’s no impetus to move. They’ve made their upgrades. The City proved it couldn’t be trusted and justified their concerns about the rural-urban divide. They won’t be returning to the table any time soon.

I asked the province about this situation, and the communities ministry was unequivocal in its statement.

“The Province will not force integration or dissolution.”

So Kelowna absorbed the smallest of the water utilities — Southeast Kelowna serves just 6,000 people — although the one with the most need and will share the cost of integration and upgrades with the other 60,000 or so residents of Kelowna’s water utility.

The City and Basran in particular picked this fight. They want all the water and for good reason. But the way they went about it, justified or not, means they’ll have to be satisfied with one out of four.

— Attribution from the communities ministry was clarified at 12:43 p.m., March 4.

— Marshall Jones is the editor of iNFOnews.ca

 


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