Close-Up: Water. What is it good for?

With increased consumption, high demand and strict health guidelines, water utilities across the valley look for answers

  • Mar. 9, 2014 8:00 a.m.

When Toby Pike started working for the South East Kelowna Irrigation District 20 years ago, the issues surrounding water management were different than they are today.

For one, the water being supplied to residents of South East Kelowna met government standards for healthy drinking water. There were only about 400 non-farm residents who received water from the utility, but their drinking water was deemed healthy.

That’s not the case today for the South East Kelowna Irrigation District (SEKID), which is now responsible for bringing water to some 2,200 homes and 400 farm properties.

In fact, all five of the water utilities in Kelowna have struggled to become compliant with government regulations for healthy drinking water as those regulations have changed. It’s likely the biggest, and the most public, issue they face today.

But like 20 years ago, the five water utilities in Kelowna—SEKID, the City of Kelowna, the Glenmore-Ellison Improvement District, Black Mountain Irrigation and Rutland Waterworks—are working together in a unique blend of local governance that has residents in Kelowna getting water from a variety of sources, depending on location.

Most municipalities in B.C. are governed by a single water utility, normally as part of the municipal government.  But not in Kelowna, where a blend of five different water utilities (not to mention a handful of private and much smaller water utilities) are tasked with the issue of working with water.

“The Kelowna Joint Water Committee was originally formed over 20 years ago to deal with city-wide water issues,” said Pike, general manager of SEKID. “The issues have changed over the years. When I got here 20 years ago we met health regulations. Now we don’t and we have to spend some money to get there.”

How much money remains to be seen as the five water utilities move forward with planning for different projects, looking to increase the amount of water being supplied to area residents, as well as meet health standards.

But unlike years ago, when they may have fought for the same government grants, those identified projects—some $400 million worth over the next decade—are prioritized in one central document, a 300 page booklet that took 18 months to complete called the Integrated Water Supply Plan.


The next project up for consideration under the Integrated Water Supply Plan is phase 1 of South East Kelowna’s move to twin its water system and add a ground source of water to its supply. Currently, the majority of the water that comes into South East Kelowna comes from Hydraulic Creek and is stored in the McCulloch Lake reservoir. The water needs to be treated before being pushed through to residential homes and the treatment is an expensive process.

“We need to either take the water and treat it or find an alternative source,” said Pike. “So we’ve decided to find another source.”

That source sits some 300 feet below Kelowna and is known as the greater Kelowna aquafir, an underground layer of water that can be tapped into using wells. Pike says SEKID has studied the aquafir and believes it is a viable supply for the future.

“We’re very confident,” he said. “We’ve done two hydrological studies on groundwater and both have concluded there is adequate water and good quality water available.”

Adding another source of water to its current system is called twinning and its something that most utilities have looked at as water supply issues become more and more important with increased demand and tougher regulations.

According to Pike, the groundwater is much easier to get into compliance with health regulations. Instead of spending money to treat the water and bring it into health compliance, the underground source would already meet health standards. The current supply from the McCulloch resevoir would then be used simply for farm irrigation purposes.


In one of Kelowna’s neighbouring communities, water is also front and centre when it comes to thinking about the future. The municipality of Lake Country is a couple of years into a 20-year water master plan to improve its water infrastructure to the tune of $79 million. One of the key components of the plan is universal water metering, measuring the water that a person uses and charging them for over-use.

Universal metering in Lake Country is moving ahead this year as the district will first be installing water meters on its agriculture users, and then, next year, moving on to residential homes.

“We still need to determine the rate structure, but when we talk about universal water metering as whole, one of the reasons to move towards it is equity of rates,” said Greg Bucholz, Lake Country’s operations manager. “You pay for what you use so somebody that is being water-wise can save some money and someone who is using water like there is no tomorrow will pay more if they are being really abusive.”

Much remains up in the air when it comes to how water metering will change the way farmers and residential customers utilize water in Lake Country, but the district is moving forward with plans to get in line with communities around the Okanagan, many of which have water metering programs already in place.

District council has committed $1 million towards the program this year as staff will install meters on up to 500 agricultural connections in Lake Country before spending $3 million to install them in residential homes in Lake Country in 2015.

To ease customers into the program a mock billing program will also take place before a new rate structure is in place, scheduled for 2017.

“We’re not looking at wholesale changes in rates,” said Bucholz. “We’re not looking to the meters to secure additional funding. What we are trying to achieve is a 25 per cent reduction in water usage. We are looking to conserve water, especially at peak times. That’s done to secure a water supply in times of a drought and to make sure water is available to downstream users.”


So as communities around the Okanagan work towards a better way to manage and provide water to its customers, they also are looking to higher levels of government to offset the costs of improving water infrastructure.

But communities, and water utilities, need to make improvements on their own, before the provincial or federal governments will step forward with money.

In Lake Country, Bucholz says the installation of water meters will make it easier to go after funding from higher levels of government.

“The province has really promoted water conservation, so in terms of getting grants, if you do not have water conservation principles in play, the grant monies will not come,” he said.

In Kelowna, one of the main reasons the five water utilities pushed forward with an Integrated Water Supply Plan was to go after government grants to offset costs.

According to Pike, the plan to twin the South Kelowna system could move ahead in a year or two with government help, or it could take up to eight years to proceed without it.

“We need to show the province that we have a good strategic plan moving forward,” said Pike. “Not only to meet the health standards, but to have a good, robust system city wide. What we are really waiting to hear is what grants will become available. The good news is Victoria is on board (in approving the Integrated Water Supply Plan); the bad news is they don’t have any money.”

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