What to do with water in Nelson?
I’m sitting in Vancouver airport waiting for a flight home. It has been a challenge with the weather in the Kootenays. After all, it’s trying to be winter right now. But I don’t mind this lull; it’s given me an opportunity to reflect on what to write about for this week’s column.
To meter or not to meter; that is the question facing council and the community. This conundrum has been before us from the time when we, as a community, realized that if we didn’t aggressively tackle our water and sewer infrastructure deficit, we would be in serious trouble. Six years ago the master plans were completed and stated the facts in black and white. Since that time there have been steady increases in our annual water and sewer rates, successful applications for grants and a very active infrastructure replacement plan. All of this is good for the community. But, one of the outstanding issues that was brought into sharp focus is how do we best manage and fairly bill for these services. Is metering a part of the answer?
Council recently received a consultant’s assessment report on water metering. Statistics illustrate that most communities are metered and the data collected assists in conservation and in a straightforward, fair billing process. However, we also learned that there are communities who don’t meter and use different methods for assessing costs and charges.
Nelson’s water system is gravity fed from Five Mile Creek. This means that unlike many other communities we don’t have the expense of pumping our water to our homes and businesses. In fact, we have pressure reducing stations to slow the flow coming into the pipes. The cost breakdown on our delivery system is 2/3 to capital and 1/3 to operating. Incoming water is metered at the creek source and there are a few commercial meters in town. We’ve learned that overall, the citizens in our community are fairly conscious of water usage even without metering.
Over the past few years, we’ve been collecting data and studying the results to better refine how to prepare for the future. Staff reported that most communities without meters use fixture counts to charge for commercial water use. This is what Nelson does and this practice has sparked debate and discussion. Staff also reported the current metered rate of those businesses that are metered is 40 per cent of what it costs to deliver water and has recommended that commercial rates be increased 33 per cent each year for the next three years. I’m sure this figure caught your attention. It sure caught mine!
This is what it means.
The city currently charges 59 cents/cubic meter of water. A cubic meter is a lot. Think of 1,000 one litre milk jugs and you’ve got it. It costs $1.95/cubic meter to deliver water and if we remove what is leaking out of old pipes, it’s around $1.44/cubic meter. A 33 per cent increase this year translates to about 20 cents more per cubic metre. Put in these terms, it sounds pretty reasonable. Council is also being asked to consider a phased installation of meters for the rest of the commercial sector.
Added to all of this is preparation for a future that may be very different than what we see today. With a changing climate, we will most likely see changes in water flows and more likelihood of wildfires. This could affect water supply and quality which is why a secondary source from the lake is being proposed. This system will be more expensive to operate because it involves pumping.
I’m not totally convinced that universal metering of the entire city will give us the results that we need for sustainability, but I do think commercial metering is a good first step. As we continue to learn more about the system and how to best steward it, we will continue to refine our approaches in how to provide the best service.
This is where you come in. We have smart citizens in our community whose thoughtful insight is appreciated. We’d like to hear from you at the December 17 council meeting on this issue. If you can’t make the meeting, contact us via the city’s website or telephone.
I wish all of you the merriest Christmas and hope you will be spending the holidays with the people you love. I’m thankful the plane got in and brought me home.
Deb Kozak is a Nelson city councillor who shares this Wednesday space with her colleagues around the table.