The following article appeared in the on-line "Oliver Daily News" . Jack Bennest, who did the story and who has spent much time at the RDOS board table, asked me for some comments. He included these at the end of the story. The story stems from a letter to the RDOS from the Province asking whether the RDOS would be willing to takeover the West Bench water system if the WBID decided to dissolve.
The Regional District Okanagan Similkameen is being challenged by the BC government to come up with a plan to improve water quality standards on the West Bench in Area F.
In a letter to the RDOS, Mike Furey, Assistant Deputy Minister, Ministry of Community, Sports and Cultural Development lays out a number of options to allow the RDOS to seek funding for a water quality improvement project. Analysis at the Regional District has a separate UV filtration project costing about the same amount as the option turned down by electors (of West Bench Irrigation District) when they said no to the cost of connecting to the City of Penticton. Furey says time is running out on grant programs and urges the RDOS to move quickly. One option calls for the break up of the WBID with the Regional District taking over control. Staff recommendation to the RDOS board is to study options.
Since 1953. West Bench area resident have relied on the WBID for irrigation and potable water service. 349 property owners, one elementary school and two parks, with 145 acres of irrigated land are supplied by the Irrigation District.
For more information see www.rdos.bc.ca
Response from Area F Director Michael Brydon
The issue seems to be sticker shock: we have a system here that seems to have worked well for generations. Water-borne illness is not something most West Bench residents have ever had to contend with and many residents are having difficulty understanding why so much money has to be spent on upgrading water quality. A second issue is the quality of the underground infrastructure. Indeed, much of the cost of the proposed upgrade is for water line replacement. Again, since people do not see this underground infrastructure, they may not want to spend a large amount of money replacing and upgrading it.
At the end of the day though, Interior Health has set standards and we are not really in any legitimate position to fight the Canadian Guidelines on Drinking Water Quality. So improved water treatment is inevitable. And according to the technical folks I have talked to, the West Bench water infrastructure (like the neighboring Sage Mesa water infrastructure) needs work. The water main failure last summer vividly illustrates the problem (the pipe looked like Swiss cheese–it was that corroded).
Of course, the West Bench Irrigation District knows all this and tried to convince West Bench residents to help fund a package of treatment and infrastructure upgrades. The question is whether the RDOS should take over where the WBID left off following the recent failure to obtain voter assent for borrowing. As I see it, the RDOS has little choice to become the water provider for the West Bench if this is what West Bench ratepayers want. Of course, this is ultimately up to the board, but I can’t see the RDOS walking away from such a core service–it is unthinkable. And West Bench ratepayers are likely to want to transfer their system to a local government because otherwise they are not eligible for senior government grants–that seems like a no-brainer to me.
But a transfer from the WBID to the RDOS does not really change the situation: treatment upgrades must still occur and in-ground infrastructure still needs attention. How is the RDOS going to succeed where the WBID failed?
One advantage that the RDOS has over the WBID is a broader mandate. There are things we can do that the WBID cannot do (e.g., include Sage Mesa, construct a UV plant, buy bulk treated water from Penticton but retain control of the system). We may be able to phase some of the costs over longer time periods or over a larger system. I am confident that we can put a full range of options in front of ratepayers and they will see the basic structure of the decision: specifically, (a) exploit existing government grants and do a lot of expensive work now or (b) take their chances with future government grants and do a lot of expensive work later. Expensive is the common denominator in either case–there does not seem to be any way around this and still have water come out of the taps.