Community minister sees a way forward in Kelowna water dispute

Pater Fassbender says he's confident recommendations by two mediators will get the city and four irrigation districts back talking.

B.C. Community Minister Peter Fassbender

B.C.’s community minister says he’s optimistic the City of Kelowna and the four independent irrigation districts that supply water to residents in various parts of the city will accept the recommendations put forward by a pair of mediators appointed by the province.

Peter Fassbender, speaking at the Southern Interior Local Government Association convention that wrapped up in Kelowna Friday, said he believes the recommendations could end the impasse between the city and the irrigation districts in their battle over the terms of reference for a provincially-mandated value planning review of a three-year-old plan for water infrastructure improvements here.

While Fassbender would not reveal what mediators George Abbott and Chris Trumpy recommended, he said he does feel the issue of future governance of the the water systems in the city should not be part of the “technical” process.

That has been the position of the irrigations districts and is at the heart of the current impasse between the city and Rutland Water Works, the Black Mountain, Glenmore-Ellison and South-east Kelowna Irrigation Districts.

But while Fassbender said governance should not be part of the value planner exercise, he said it must be looked at down the road. How far is now the question.

Victoria, he added, is not prepared at this time to step in and order the irrigation districts to amalgamate with the city’s water utility.

The city wants one, integrated water system for the entire city rather than the current situation where five seperate and independent entities, including its own water utility, now provide water to residential, business and agriculture customers throughout Kelowna.

On Thursday night, representatives of Rutland Water Works and the Black Mountain Irrigation District spoke to about 30 people at a meeting organized by the Rutland Residents’ Association. Garry Zarr of of Rutland Water Works and Gordie Ivans of BMID said  they believe the city has made the issue less about water quality and more about politics.

“Unfortunately, politics has gotten in the way of this thing,” said the BMID’s Ivans.

The city and the irrigations districts are at odds over a 2012 water plan for the entire city that all five groups signed off on and calls for more than $360 million of improvements to the existing water systems over the next 15 years.

The city now feels that the work called for in the plan could be done faster and cheaper if there was just one integrated water system serving entire city. And, it feels there would be fewer water advisories issued because of potential health problems associated with water from some of the irrigation districts because they use surface water sources.

Kelowna city manager Ron Mattiussi said Friday the province ordered the value planning exercise for the water plan and the city feels if there there are to be connections between irrigations districts and the city—Rutland Water Works and BMID say they already have a connection—governance has to be addressed.

Irrigation districts in B.C. are independent bodies that have taxing authority and whose ratepayers fund infrastructure improvement unless government grants can be acquired. Zarr noted because of that, the city cannot force the irrigation districts to amalgamate, that would have to come from the province.

Muddying the local waters is the fact the province, 10 years ago, made irrigation districts ineligible for applying for grants, telling them they had to have municipalities apply on their behalf.

The city, which applied last year and was unsuccessful, also contends that the grants they are being asked to apply for on behalf of the irrigation districts are dollars they could apply for to pay for other infrastructure needs in the city. So, in essence, they are giving up on money they could use in order to secure for another another jurisdiction even though it would service its residents.

It says that is one of the reasons it wants a single, interconnected water utility so funding decisions can be made with the entire city in mind.

After years of talking behind the scenes about this issue, current Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran went public with the city’s frustrations and called for a single water system earlier this year during his State Of The City address to the local chamber of commerce.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Fassbender said the province is aware that the clock is ticking on possible grants from the federal government under its new infrastructure funding program. Ottawa is has promised millions of dollars to help municipalities pay to improve their infrastructure, especially when it comes to water.

At Thursday’s meeting in Rutland, Zarr said while his organization’s water is very good because it comes from an underground aquifer—and both Black Mountain and, to a lesser degree, Glenmore Ellison have made improvements to their systems using their own money, South-east Kelowna, with the smallest population base, needs grants the most to improve its water system. And he said that’s where the other three irrigation districts feel any grant money received should go first.

Asked about the local situation Thursday at the SILGA convention, B.C.’s NDP  leader John Horgan said his party would also not wade in on one side or the other, but would like to see the community work out a solution that they feel is best for all local residents.