It was standing room only last week as Hagensborg Water users showed up in droves for the District’s annual general meeting.
The District has faced significant challenges in the past decade, particularly in relation to provincial legislation that requires all water to be “potable” as outlined in the Drinking Water Protection Act.
The Drinking Water Protection Act of 2001 was enacted in response to the Walkerton, Ontario tragedy, in which five people died after their drinking water was contaminated with a deadly strain of E.Coli.
Under the Act, the District’s water system must deliver “potable” water. Potable water is defined as water that, once it reaches the home, is safe to drink without further treatment.
The Hagensborg Water District is currently under a boil water advisory as no overall treatment system is in place. In addition, Hagensborg’s source is surface water, which in theory has a greater risk of contamination due to easier accessibility from human and animal activity.
There are several ways to treat water, but all are expensive and complicated, and Improvement Districts are not entitled to government funding. This has resulted in multiple difficulties for the Hagensborg Water District and dozens of other smaller water systems across the province as they struggle to meet provincial legislation on shoestring budgets.
Several treatment options exist to deal with pathogens, such as bacteria, protozoa, and viruses, that may be present in the water. At a public meeting in June 2009, water users voted against the use of chlorine and opted for a UV-treatment “point of entry” system. This option was only available to the District as it is defined as a “small water system” with a user-base of under 500.
Rates went up substantially to support the project, initially from $100 to $600 per year, and the first of the point of entry (POE) systems were installed as pilot project in 2012. The pilot project was intended to discover the pros and cons to the system, and identify any major issues the District may expect to face.
The pilot project has now been in operation for four years, and many people at the meeting expressed concerns with how the project is unfolding and whether or not it will be an effective option at the end of the trial.
As of January 2016, water users pay a toll of $150 for a single family dwelling and a $500 parcel tax for each piece of land they own within the District, with the bulk of these parcel tax funds ($425) going towards the support and development of the POE system. $75 of the parcel tax goes to waterworks operations, as does the entire toll.
The most serious issue affecting the POE system is turbidity. As everyone in the District knows, if there are heavy rains the water level rises and turbidity follows. The silt that comes with the turbidity has had the most negative impact on the POE’s, and they shut off due to their sensitivity.
To deal with this issue and also to alleviate water shut offs during turbidity, the District applied for and was granted a permit to construct a well. That project was just completed and approved, but the well will only provide a relief period of one or two days during water shut offs and cannot serve the community full-time. In addition, the water still requires treatment.
“The well water has tested perfectly but it is still surface-influenced water and will also require treatment before it reaches the home,” said Trustee Donald Mikkelson.
It was also noted that the POE system cost just over $7000 to maintain in 2015, an average cost of $1000 per unit, but Mikkelson was hopeful that the addition of the well would alleviate these costs in future as turbidity events would be avoided.
There are three commercial operations that are also set to receive POE’s for trial: Bella Coola Mountain Lodge, the airport and Rip Rap Campsite. Once data is received from these commercial locations, Mikkelson expected to have a clearer answer on the suitability of the POE system for the District.
“We have one more year to test it in commercial operations and by then we should know if it’s both feasible and affordable,” he said.
Several other options were also discussed regarding water treatment, such as re-exploring the option of chlorination and whether or not Hagensborg could tie into the Nuxalk system.
“Tying into the Nuxalk system was explored and determined to be impossible,” said Mikkelson. “The existing infrastructure is too old and would not be able to handle the pressure.”
CAO Rosemary Smart stated that the upgrades required would include chemicals and three booster stations.
Chlorination, which had been adamantly opposed in the past, was also revisited. Ralph Gunderson stated that there are filtration systems now available to remove it from the water once it reaches the home, and therefore it might be more appealing.
Trustee Chris Matthews went through a substantial list of reasons as to why chlorination is not suited to this system, including fire protection, cost, and aging infrastructure.
“We need unchlorinated water for fire protection, which most large cities have but would be extremely costly for our District,” Matthews explained. “In addition, the government would not allow chlorinated water to pass through our aging pipe system, as the potential for leakage is high.”
“The POE system is estimated to cost $500,000,” said Mikkelson. “Estimates for chlorination are in the $5 million range.”
Much of the pipeline was constructed decades ago out of concrete asbestos and is in need of replacement. However, the District has elected to pursue the POE treatment option first as it’s been identified as highest priority. The District has plans to do the pipe replacement in sections in a bid to avoid debt.
Dianne Skelly noted that she had done research into other treatment systems, and also questioned whether or not POE was still the most appropriate choice as there has been more advances in technology. However, the conundrum of how to fund any treatment system remains, and Matthews reminded the crowd that there is always the option of doing nothing.
“Right now the HWD is the front runner for being proactive in trying to meet compliance,” he stated. “But doing nothing is an option.”
It was noted that this is the route currently being taken by the Noosatsum Waterworks District, who are also facing pressure to meet treatment obligations as a community well system.
The audited financial statements were presented by District Bookkeeper/Chief Financial Officer Wes Abel. Abel has recently transitioned into the role of CFO after a one-year period as bookkeeper.
At the 2015 AGM water users were critical of administration costs and asked the District to lower these expenses. Matthews stated that each Trustee had taken on an additional 100 – 150 hours in an attempt to lower costs, and Abel presented a comparison the HWD did of their administration costs in relation to other Improvement Districts. The HWD 19 percent administration costs, which appeared to be about average based on their comparison with other districts.
However, Stephen Waugh pointed out that these figures were based on 2014 numbers and that administration costs for 2015 were substantially higher, particularly in the bookkeeping and CFO section. Abel contributed this to the work he had done over the past year to standardize the budget.
Questions were also raised over the District’s procurement policy for contracts, to which the District replied that it does not formally have one. Waugh pointed out that there was a conflict of interest in relation to Matthews’ family holding the maintenance contract for the District, to which Matthews’ replied that he was not part of any decisions made in relation to this contract, and that he left the room during any discussions about it.
Ken McIlwain also questioned the rationale for the overall 130 percent increase to tolls, to which Abel replied that the increase was based on the inflation rate from 1982 to present, during which tolls have remained the same.
“In 1982 the toll for a single family dwelling was $100, and it hasn’t kept pace with the rate of inflation, which is negatively impacting the operating budget,” Abel explained. “The compliance funds are strictly for compliance and cannot be used for operating costs, which explains the need to increase the tolls.”
The plan is for tolls to increase from $100 to $235 over five years, with the largest increase being this year at 50 percent. McIlwain stated that he would like to see more budget forecasting and planning to accompany the increase in tolls, and Abel replied that this wasn’t in the works just yet.
There were requests for another public meeting to discuss decisions around the POE systems and possible other options, and Matthews replied that this was an option but requested that people actually attend, as in the past turnout had been minimal.
The night concluded with elections of trustees, of which four positions were available as longstanding Trustee Ken Dunsworth had resigned, as had Dianne Tuck, who was elected in 2015.
Kevin O’Neill and Jeremy Baillie were elected to three-year terms, Chairman Chris Matthews was re-elected to a two-year term, and Mark Nelson was elected to one-year term. Mikkelson’s term was not yet expired.
The District encouraged water users to use their website, which can be found at www.hwwdistrict.ca.