Waters: Irrigation districts run out of wiggle room

Provincial support for new city water plan appears to spell the end for IDs in Kelowna.

The writing is on the wall for irrigation districts in Kelowna. And it’s the province that’s doing the writing.

With the current rules in place to get provincial water infrastructure grants—municipalities must apply on behalf of irrigation districts and to be successful, irrigation districts must fold into municipal water systems—it’s clear Victoria shares Kelowna city hall’s belief a single, integrated, city-wide water system is the way to go.

And that belief appears to come from the top.

In an exclusive interview with Premier Christy Clark Friday, just minutes after she met with Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran to discuss the city’s new water supply plan, Clark made it clear the new plan is what will be followed, regardless of the participation of the three holdout irrigation districts, Rutland Water Works, the Glemore-Ellison Improvement District and the Black Mountain Irrigation District.

“This is the plan. We won’t be reworking it,” said Clark. But she added a conciliatory note, saying she hopes the three will join the plan once they see what she believes will be the benefits to the entire city.

Clark’s comments are a clear victory for Kelowna and Mayor Colin Basran, who has made water the city’s top priority and has been calling for a single, integrated water system for the the entire city.

But, as was made clear Monday by the lead consultant who helped put the new plan together, a city-wide plan requires all the providers to participate in order to make it work. While Don Stafford was quick to point out that the new plan is a technical document that did not address the issue of governance, it does layout how a city-wide plan should work.

So, with the province’s support and the hammer of forced absorption of the irrigation districts into the city’s water utility system if needed, it appears there’s little option but for the holdouts to capitulate or have their hands forced.

The irrigation districts appeared to have gambled the province would not enforce it’s requirement that to get provincial money they have to join the municipal system. And they lost. Walking way from the value planning study may have been an attempt to see if the province was bluffing. But Victoria didn’t blink.

With the plan addressing both the way the city will provide domestic and agricultural water needs, as well as fire flow requirements, it seems to have all the bases covered. It’s hard to see where the irrigation districts go from here.

The South-East Kelowna Irrigation District’s needs, agreed by all to be the highest priority, will be met by the city applying for a $43.9 million grant on its behalf and it appears to be willing to join the city’s system to get that money.

So, it’s now when, not if, the other three water providers also get on board—or are forced on board—and move Kelowna from a city with five separate water providers to a city with just one.

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.