A lot goes on behind the scenes in order for the water to flow from your tap as you fill your kettle for your morning coffee. And in a post-Walkerton world, provincial legislation is making every attempt to ensure that the water that goes into that kettle is as safe as possible. But that safety which we have come to expect, carries a cost.
A lengthy but informative presentation to council on Monday January 10 by independent consultant Gary Scandlon of Watson & Associates, provided a snapshot of the hoops and hurdles that must be navigated in order for a municipality like Meaford to bring that water to our homes.
The focus of the presentation was a financial plan that had been prepared for both water and waste-water systems run by the municipality. A financial plan is a necessary step in meeting the criteria for new water licencing requirements in Ontario.
Water systems in Ontario are also required to be self sustaining, meaning that users of the system must pay the full cost of operating the system. Municipal tax dollars are not used to support water and waste-water systems.
So when the province introduces new legislation, or new criteria to be met, the costs to meet those requirements will be worked into our water bills.
While some might be tempted to complain that once again our water and waste-water rates will be increasing this year by six percent for each service, it is worth noting that going forward, Meaford is actually in very good shape with respect to our water services, and the increases that we will see in the coming years will be miniscule when compared to many other municipalities.
As was explained by Scandlon, to try to compare water rates from one municipality to another today is not a truly accurate comparison, as the full effect of water system self sufficiency requirements has not yet set in for municipalities in Ontario.
In fact, the municipalities that currently boast very low water rates, the municipalities that people often point to when complaining about the high cost of water in their own municipalities, are the very municipalities that are going to see the most drastic increases in water rates in the coming years.
According to Scandlon some municipalities have already experienced multiple years of increases in excess of 15 percent per year, and there will be others in the same boat in the coming years.
Why? Because as their financial plans come together, and their systems are measured against water safety legislation, they will find that they now have to pay for years of having neglected to spend money on maintenance, upgrades and other improvements to their water infrastructure.
Meaford on the other hand according to Scandlon, is in very good shape for having a sustainable water and waste-water system, and as a result, though we might not like the increases which are forecast to average roughly four percent per year over the next ten years, we should count ourselves lucky as it could be much worse. We did have one year of significant water rate increases in 2009, and a smaller increase last year, but given what other municipalities have, and will experience, we fared pretty well in Meaford.
“This municipality has been doing the right things, and you are well prepared (for this new legislation),” Scandlon told council.
Part of the reason we will fare better than some other municipalities, particularly larger municipalities as this process continues to unfold, is that our water infrastructure is relatively new, since the bulk of our infrastructure dates to the early 1980's.
So for Meaford, replacement of pipes and watermains that have a typical life expectancy of 50 years is still a long way off. Not so for other municipalities, who will be faced with some serious upgrading and maintenance in order to meet provincial water safety legislation. And because municipalities must also ensure that their water systems are self-sustaining, the only way they can cover those costs is through their water rates.
Some $81 million has been spent on our water infrastructure over the years in Meaford. That amounts to $34,000 per customer having been invested just to bring water to your tap, let alone the cost of operating the water system from day to day.
I'd suggest that what we pay for safe, clean water is a bargain.
So later this year when you receive your water bill and you see an increase of six percent, don't pick up the phone and start venting to someone at the municipal office.
If anything, you should phone and thank them for doing the things that have allowed the increase to be small by comparison to what other municipalities will be experiencing.