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B.C. sewer, water infrastructure deficits still require more work

Jean Sorensen
B.C. sewer, water infrastructure deficits still require more work

British Columbia municipalities are making some headway in reducing their sewer and water infrastructure deficit through asset management programs and federal and provincial grants, but it is a far cry from the needed billions of dollars needed to play catch-up.

The deficit figure depends upon who is counting. In 2015, the B.C. Water & Waste Association (BCWWA) commissioned Urban Systems to looking at how far down the drain local governments were in funding the replacement of aging underground systems. Urban estimates a whopping $13 billion was needed.

The Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) tackled the issue in its 2017 B.C. election platform, acknowledging the increasing pressure on local government to supply fund new infrastructure while replacing the old ones, which alone was a pricey proposition. "In B.C. alone, there is an estimated $19.9 billion infrastructure gap of immediate renewal and replacement infrastructure for local government," the UBCM claims. UBCM’s figure includes all infrastructure, while the BCWWA report only looks at water and sewer.

The 2012 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card estimates that more than $80-billion is required in Canada to replace aging water, wastewater, and storm water assets that are in "fair" to "very poor" condition. That becomes a staggering amount foisted onto the shoulders of local governments. According to a 2016 survey by the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, local governments own nearly 60 per cent of Canada’s core public infrastructure. The value of the core municipal infrastructure is valued at $1.1 trillion.

While figures vary, the reality does not. Water and sewer system replacement has lagged. It is not uncommon to find aging B.C. lines that are up to 100 years old or more in some of the province’s 196 municipal governments. B.C. also has 198 First Nations communities.

"It is not just here but throughout North America," said president-elect Chris Johnston of the BCWWA.

Opus International, carrying out an asset-management report for Oak Bay recently, issued a report finding that is common for older municipalities. Oak Bay’s sewer, storm and water assets are in "poor or very poor condition", the report said. The cost of upgrading and replacement is estimated at more than $200 million with the cost of sewers $65.5 million, water $57 million, and storm-water $82 million.

In Prince George, another city looking at replacing old underground systems, a portion of downtown was flooded when a 1957 section of water main burst in November 2016 shutting down the water system for 24 hours.

The New Westminster city is one of B.C.’s oldest and has some underground pipe that is 100 years old.

"It is not a large percentage," said Eugene Wat, the city’s manager of infrastructure planning, but a lot of the underground infrastructure is 50 to 70 years old. It’s a common situation in B.C., which saw a post-Second World War building boom.

BCWWA’s report estimates that 34 per cent of B.C. residents are served by water pipes that are more than 50 years old, while an additional six per cent receive their water in mains reported to be more than 75 years old.

"We certainly have our share of infrastructure that needs to upgraded and replaced," said Wat, adding that most municipalities are in the same situation.

"We are managing," he said. Managing is an exercise in understanding what needs to be replaced to mitigate service disruption and optimizing available resources, he said. The city is allocating resources annually to upgrading and replacing its water and waste underground infrastructure with approximately $4 million allocated each year. Fortunately, he said, while the city is growing most of the growth is vertical because of its bounded land base and that lessens the demand for new infrastructure dollars.

The Clean Water and Wastewater Fund, a joint federal and provincial venture launched in 2016, has been useful to the city. A total of $373.6 million was committed to communities in B.C. for water and wastewater projects.

The UBCM maintains that municipal governments "cannot do it alone" when it comes to replacing aging infrastructure and there is the need for provincial and federal help. The federal Gas Tax program, the joint federal-provincial New Building Canada Fund, the provincial Towns for Tomorrow and B.C. Community Recreation programs are all example of programs that have benefitted communities.

UBCM, though, wants more from the 10-year Long Term Infrastructure Plan, a partnership between local governments and the federal government. The UBCM is looking for a B.C. commitment so that municipalities can proceed on projects. "We need a secure provincial commitment to maintain at a minimum, a 33 per cent contribution to cost-shared program and projects," according to a UBCM statement.

In a 2014 survey of water and sewer utilities conducted by the Canadian Water & Wastewater Association (CWWA), 63 per cent of utility respondents in B.C. indicated that "unpredictability of federal/provincial grant programs" is a threat to ensuring there will be sufficient financial resources for infrastructure renewal, which indicates that many municipalities remain reliant upon grant money to fix systems.

The BCWWA 2015 report advocates local governments should take charge of their fiscal destiny in renewing water and waste infrastructure.

Johnston said the BCWWA-initiated report was intended to draw attention to the major problems facing municipalities and provide greater understanding of how to address them.

The report points to four main areas where B.C. communities are failing. Revenues collected for water and waste fell far short of what is needed and should double to become sustainable. Local governments have not provided a reserve for unexpected events such as equipment breakdown or seismic disruption and despite emergency funding by institutions would be left without services. Smaller communities suffer from the largest gap in funding replacement of aging infrastructure. And, finally, local governments need to deploy a long-term strategy for investment and replacement before they get caught out in new regulation or climate changes.

Johnston said smaller communities (less than 10,000 in population) struggle as they just don’t have the economy of scale to pay for replacement costs. "And, they don’t have the business or industrial base to help them out," he said.

Turning the deficit about is like turning an oil tanker. "It is slow-moving process," said Urban’s John Weninger, who authored the BCWWA report. "We have not seen a lot of movement in the last couple of years." He is hoping to update the report in 2020 to mark progress.

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