Lake Country faces water challenges

Alto Utilities owner Larry Fallis monitors water levels in the three concrete reservoirs on his system. The private utility serves more than 400 homes, a church and an elementary school. - Mike Simmons
Alto Utilities owner Larry Fallis monitors water levels in the three concrete reservoirs on his system. The private utility serves more than 400 homes, a church and an elementary school.
— image credit: Mike Simmons

As private water systems are being taken over by Lake Country to improve standards, one private utility owner says public waterworks in the area are not meeting standards either.

A private water utility in existence since 1970, Alto Utilities serves more than 400 homes, a church and Peter Greer Elementary School. Owner Larry Fallis said the company has put out $100,000 in upgrades to meet safety standards put into place after the Walkerton tragedy in 2000.

"A lot of it was already in place, but all of it's making sure that we're providing safe water to customers."

He said the company was paying a couple of thousand in taxes, but when the district rezoned the company's property to utility class, the few acres of land owned by the utility drew five times its original tax rate.

"This is valuable land. We have no intention of giving it up for $1."

Fallis said as far as he's concerned, Alto's water standards are far above the district's own. He pointed out his children can't drink from the water fountains at Davidson Road school due to poor water quality. Fallis said the fountains have been covered with plastic bags, and bottled water is used at the school. He added the only school in Lake Country where kids can drink from the fountains is Peter Greer, served by his own utility.

The Alto system draws from wells, while the Lake Country system drains from lakes at higher altitudes. Fallis pointed out lake systems are subject to whatever substances end up in the water, and believes the addition of chlorine can be a health hazard.

Fallis said the Lake Country water infrastructure is deteriorating, and would require $75 million in upgrades to meet Interior Health standards.

He said the district inspected his operation and went through the utility's books, but painted the system inaccurately in their final assessment.

"I think they expected to find something seriously wrong."

He added that at the same time, Lake Country was rezoning Alto's properties to a utility class.

The homes served by Alto rest up against the side of a new development at Copper Hill, with Peter Greer Elementary inside the developed area. Fallis said all Alto would have had to do to serve the new development was open their pipes, but the district built connections to the public water system instead, running them down the side of the roadway.

Fallis said Alto has not had a boil water advisory in more than 40 years. He added the utility more than meets any standards for water storage in case of fires.

"They put all these roadblocks in our way, like fire storage, that they don't meet themselves."

Fallis said Alto has no debt, and $300,000 in the bank. He added there have been no water stoppages in seven years that haven't been managed.

Lake Country director of engineering Michael Mercer said any utility, whether public or privately owned, should be looked at on an individual basis. He added Fallis does a good job and Alto is well-managed. Such has not been the case for other private utilities acquired by the district.

"There have been private utilities created in the district of Lake Country that have been failing, from a financial perspective, from an infrastructure perspective or from an operations perspective."

Mercer pointed out utility customers and the provincial government have both approached Lake Country to take over operations.

While Alto draws from groundwater and is able to pull from the aquifer, Mercer said Lake Country draws from several lake sources.

"Some of the contaminant challenges that we face, he doesn't have those."

New regulations issued by the Interior Health Authority for water quality have given utilities a more stringent standard to follow. He noted that as a result, some of Lake Country's systems do not meet criteria all the time.

On any given day, sometimes water will meet the requirements of Interior Health, and not at other times. Mercer noted continual announcements of boil water advisories coming off and on lead to media fatigue and people pay attention less.

"We've chosen just to leave these on."

Taking the district's infrastructure to the point where it consistently meets health standards will take some effort. Mercer said Lake Country is currently working on a water master plan. Capital planning for improvements is also a requirement set by Interior Health.

Of the five sources Lake Country draws from, Okanagan and Kalamalka Lakes are fairly consistent and steady. Mercer noted Lake Country is asking for deferral from filtering those sources, and noted chlorination and ultraviolet treaments may be the solution.

The sections that draw from Beaver and Oyama Lakes will likely require some form of filtration. Mercer said the district is still examining which combination of treatment plant or plants and pipelines will suffice.

Mercer added the condition of private water systems taken over by Lake Country have varied, but overall the smaller systems have been in poor shape.

"They were in pretty bad shape, and we had to bring them up to more of a modern standard."

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