Nanaimo plans referendum on $22.5-million loan for water treatment

Referendum expected to be tied to municipal election in November

A referendum on spending $22.5 million on water treatment should flow out with the fall municipal elections.

The provincial government and Vancouver Island Health Authority have told Nanaimo it needs to build a $65-million water treatment facility, now it’s up to residents and city council to figure out how to pay for it.

With the federal and provincial governments contributing $17.8 million through the Building Canada Fund (the city applied for $32.5 million), the city will find more than $24.7 million from development cost charges, the Community Works Fund, Water Fund reserves and user rates.

Council decided Monday it will ask residents if it can borrow the remainder of $22.5 million through a referendum tied to November’s municipal elections, rather than through a summertime alternate approval process.

If the public doesn’t grant permission to borrow, council will have to find another way of coming up with the money, likely through increasing water user rates, which are already scheduled to increase five per cent annually.

For many councillors, being told it had no choice but to spend $50 million of taxpayers money was hard to swallow, especially since Nanaimo’s drinking water is among the best in the country.

“We’ve been ordered by VIHA to do this and it is my understanding from some time back that if we don’t do it, they’ll do it and send us the bill,” said Coun. Fred Pattje. “We’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Coun. Merv Unger said it is impossible for council to keep taxes down when senior levels of government continue to demand the city spends more money.

“It used to be the feds, province and local government all were responsible for a third of the cost,” he said. “We want to keep taxes down but other organizations keep telling us to spend. I’m having difficulty with that.”

Tom Hickey, Nanaimo’s general manager of community services, said VIHA is responding to Canada Drinking Water Guidelines and that the new South Forks water filtration plant is to ensure Nanaimo residents have clean drinking water “each and every day of the year.”

Hickey said while Nanaimo has only experienced boil water advisories a few times over the last decade, turbidity levels spike during heavy rains and some organisms like giardia and cryptosporidium are a threat during summer months.

“The facility is to ensure clean drinking water for the future,” said Hickey. “There is good rationale for filtration.”

The treatment centre itself, located off South Forks Road near Nanaimo River Road, is scheduled to be completed by spring 2015. It will use expensive high-tech membranes to filter water sent down from the Jump and South Fork lakes.

The city has already spent $3 million in planning and construction is expected to begin by next year, as the completion of the preliminary design is almost complete.

The plant will be built to accommodate 116 million litres per day, which is the projected demand for 2035.

City staff and VIHA officials have met several times since 2008 to discuss the science behind the new drinking water standards.

The new facility is a condition of the city’s drinking water permit issued by VIHA. Al Kenning, Nanaimo’s city manager, said it is unlikely VIHA would complete the project if the city refused to build it, but it would face serious fines.

“I find that interesting because VIHA couldn’t find us during the wet house issue,” said Coun. Jim Kipp, referring to contentious public debate over social housing, a project for which VIHA is a partner but did not send representatives to answer questions from the public.

Asking the public for permission to borrow in a referendum passed 4-3 with Mayor John Ruttan and Couns. Bill Bestwick and Merv Unger preferring an alternate approval process, which would have required the consent of 10 per cent of Nanaimo’s 62,680 electors. Couns. Bill Holdom and Diana Johnstone were away.

“If we have no choice but to do this, I don’t know why we wouldn’t just take the most direct route, which in my opinion is an alternate approval process,” said Ruttan.


Water facility quickfacts

• Plant sits on a 27-hectare site

• Can accommodate 116 million litres per day

• Will minimize water and energy waste and reduce chemical use

• Meets projected demands to 2035

• Will utilize membrane technology