Interior Health steering clear of Kelowna water fight

The health authority says it's concerned with water quality, not governance, when it comes to who should supply water to city residents.

Interior Health will not get dragged into the current debate over whether Kelowna should have a single, integrated water system serving all its residents instead of the current five separate, independent systems.

IH board chairman Erwin Malzer said while he has a personal view of Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran’s call for a single water utility here, the health authority is strictly concerned with the safety of local drinking water, not the governance issue of who provides it.

“It’s not something we would get into,” said Malzer, who attended the opening day of the annual Southern Interior Local Government Association convention in Kelowna on Wednesday.

This year, the theme of the SILGA convention is water.

Earlier in the day, IH medical health officer Dr. Kamran Golmohammadi took a similar stance to Malzer when questioned by Kelowna city councillor and Central Okanagan board chairwoman Gail Given following his presentation.

Given, asking about a slide Golmohammadi used showing a large number of water advisories in and around the Kelowna area, noted that none of the advisories were for water provided by the city’s water utility.

They were, she said, issued for water from the four independent and separate irrigation districts which provide water to half the city’s population.

Like Malzer, Golmohammadi  said IH did not get involved in governance structure issues when it comes to water providers.

“We strongly believe that everyone needs to work together for the best governance structure that works for the whole community,” he said.

“We do not promote one over the other.”

In recent weeks, the city has stepped up its call for a single water utility to serve all Kelowna residents.

But that call has been resisted by Rutland Water Works, the Glenmore-Ellison IrrigationDistrict, the Black Mountain Irrigation District and the South-East Kelowna Irrigation District.

Complicating the matter is that the province, also unwilling to publicly wade into the local governance issue, has made it clear that funding for any infrastructure projects that the four non-municipal water purveyors may seek from Victoria must be applied for through the city.

That has lead to accusations the city is holding up possible funding for system improvements, a charge the city denies.

It says irrigation districts are ineligible for grants under provincial policy and to access grants, they must integrate with local government.

“The province suggested six years ago irrigation districts could be eligible for grants if the five water purveyors (including the city utility) could come up with a plan that is the best city-wide solution for the lowest cost and must demonstrate that five independent water districts are as effective as one city-wide water utility,” said city special projects manager Ron Westlake in a statement issued by the city earlier this week.

Currently, former B.C. health minister George Abbott is mediating a dispute between the city and the four irrigation districts over setting the terms of reference for that plan.

In his presentation at the SILGA convention, Golmohammadi told delegates that, across the entire IH region, 40 per cent of the nearly 2,000 water systems are currently under some type of long-term water notification.

At any time, he said there are 350 boil water advisories issued, he said.

The SILGA convention wrapped up Friday.