The West Bench Irrigation District could be formally dissolved as early as next month, paving the way for a referendum on a possible upgrade of its aging water system.
The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen has agreed to take over the West Bench water system, following the irrigation district‘s recent decision to apply for dissolution. The final step calls for the transfer to be approved by the province through an order-in-council, expected sometime in June.
Michael Brydon, RDOS director for Area F (West Bench-Okanagan Lake West), said the move opens the door to provincial funding to upgrade the system. Such grants can only be obtained by municipalities and regional districts.
"We‘re trying to lock in those grants - that‘s really the whole point here - then bring voters some options," he said.
Following provincial government approval of the transfer, RDOS staff will begin reviewing the capital requirements for an upgrade and other options. A final decision on whether to borrow the money would be put to the ratepayers in a referendum later this year.
Last December, West Bench voters rejected a $3.2-million proposal to hook into the City of Penticton water system. In addition to the capital expense, they also would have had to pay 10 per cent more for their water than customers in Penticton.
"The referendum in the fall that failed didn‘t really resolve anything, because it just left the status quo, so we‘re going to have to go through this again," Brydon said.
"Most of this project is updating pipes in the ground. It‘s seen as a treatment system upgrade, but, really, a big part of this project is replacing aging pipe."
The RDOS is asking the province to extend the completion date for any upgrade under the B.C. Water Improvement Program grant by two years to March 31, 2014.
Theresa Nolet, chair of the West Bench Irrigation District, said the decision to dissolve the WBID wasn‘t easy, but she believes it was a necessary step.
"It was a hard decision, but the residents will still get a vote at a referendum when this does go through," she said.
The referendum will likely include choices as to how to go about the upgrade. Nolet said options could range from paying for treatment system improvements to possible bulk water purchases from the City of Penticton.
She declined to speculate whether there will be another proposal to join the city‘s water system.
Brydon said he‘s hopeful some kind of solution can be found, noting the issue has sparked its share of controversy in the past.
"I‘m optimistic that we‘ll be able to find sort of a compromise that takes advantage of these grants but is not seen as being a big problem," he said. "The voters voted against the Penticton deal, so maybe that wasn‘t quite the way to do it."
Another proposal calls for a possible future consolidation with the neighbouring Sage Mesa water system. Although privately owned, it is controlled by the province through a management contract with the RDOS.
The RDOS board decision to take over the West Bench system was not unanimous. Some directors expressed fears about leaving the regional district liable for any problems similar to the Blackwell Stores lawsuit in Naramata.
Its support for the West Bench takeover came with a proviso that all debts, liabilities, legal and operating costs would be the sole responsibility of residents within the service area.
However, Brydon downplayed any fears of a Blackwell-style
"I don‘t think there‘s any skeletons in the closet. The West Bench Irrigation District was a well-run entity," he said.