COLUMN: Water – think clearly, and then vote

Water is much on our minds these days – and only two more to go before we vote.

Water, water everywhere, and every drop to think about.

(Apologies to the Ancient Mariner…)

Water is much on our minds these days – and only two more to go before we vote.

It’s an issue which has created a lot of public confusion, much of it due to the fact that this is an extremely complex matter, that can’t be boiled down to simple yes and no, black and white answers.

Add to that the misinformation being tossed around by the anti-P3’ers, and many of the candidates, which is really quite overwhelming.

Let me offer the following:

First off. The referendum you are about to vote on is based on a number of studies and independent reports.

One is the 2010 AECOM Master Water Plan, prepared by engineers hired to study this city’s existing water supply and future needs. A similar report was done in 2006.

AECOM concluded there was a potential for a water shortage by 2016, based on several days of peak usage reached in recent years.

Was that unrealistic? I’ll take their worst-case scenario planning over wishful thinking based on a recent downward trend in water consumption due largely to cooler summers. I tend to trust engineers. I don’t trust the weather.

The AECOM report recommended Stave Lake as the new source.

The accounting firm Deloitte Touche examined the P3 approach and recommended the city pursue the federal funding.

With that now secured, the project is ostensibly about $90 million cheaper than going it alone for the public option.

I’ll go with professional number-crunching, not the creative calculations of laymen, well-intentioned or otherwise.

The same goes for interpretations of international law as it applies to private involvement in public water delivery.

I’m listening to the experts, who say a private company simply does not have “control” over public water or rates, as long as those factors are locked into the contract.

I’m looking at the other P3 water projects in Canada, and see no corporate seizure of water resources.

Now on to options.

AECOM considered six different water sources, and 19 scenarios involving combinations of those, including the Fraser River, and Chilliwack and Harrison lakes, and the existing Norrish Creek and groundwater supply.

They all were eliminated in favour of Stave Lake, for various reasons, most related to capacity, cost and public perception. (Do you really want to drink water from the Fraser?)

Should all this be studied further?

The bottom line is this. The City of Abbotsford is going to need a new source of water in the near future.

Can it be delayed? With increased conservation and slower growth, perhaps. But there are ramifications with that.

Putting the brakes on growth will cost jobs and business revenue – a lot of both. Should you care? Yes, if your employment is in any way related to the local economy, which is fuelled in large part by growth, and in turn the construction industry and all of its spin-offs.

But say it would be possible to expand the Norrish Creek system for less than Stave Lake, and gain 10 years of breathing room, during which the city could save its pennies. (AECOM puts a full upgrade at Norrish at $300M, by the way.)

In a decade, where will financing rates be? How much more will it cost to develop a major new water source then?

Keep in mind the process for a new plant and treatment centre should be started about five years from now to be ready in 10. Will $65 million from the feds – with no P3 strings attached – be available then? Unknown. Will Mission be back as a partner to compensate for the loss of those funds? Possibly.

Much uncertainty lies with this issue, and clarity doesn’t necessarily come by putting it off.

It boils down to this: If you can’t get past the worry of private involvement in public water delivery, despite the protection that a well-negotiated contract could provide, then your referendum vote is clear.

If you accept that a new water supply for this city is inevitable, and a project delay or  temporary fix is of marginal advantage, or even a gamble, then there’s no point in dithering.

Now, on Saturday, go vote.

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