The current water system at Johnson's Landing consists of a series of temporary feeds and connections across this landscape.

Johnsons Landing water project shovel-ready, but funding elusive

Water users group says government ministries are shying away from helping with their plan for a new water system.

Johnsons Landing residents are still without a water system three years after the massive landslide that destroyed homes and lives.

“We’ve lost friends, neighbours, land, forest, homes, a way of life, and the most precious of basic needs, water,” states a news release issued last week by the Gar Creek Water Users Association.

After three years of planning, spending, and roadblocks at every turn, a workable plan for a water system, developed by the water user community, is ready to build. It has engineered plans and a health authority approval in place. But the association needs $192,000 to reach the project’s budget of over $300,000.

Another problem is that the association’s current bank balance of $114,000 consists of grant money that has to be given back if the project doesn’t get enough funding to go ahead.

The provincial government, Columbia Basin Trust, provincial disaster fund assistance, regional district Area D,  and private donations have funded the work done so far, but more is needed.

While it is true that regional districts sometimes provide water systems for rural residents, this is accomplished by taxing the users. In this case there are too few users for that to make financial sense.

Every agency the community has applied to for funding has refused on the grounds that they do not fund community water systems or that the group must spend all its existing money first.

Those funders include BC Hydro, the Columbia Basin Trust, Columbia Power, the Real Estate Foundation, North Kootenay Lake Society, Southern Interior Development Initiative Trust, the Osprey Foundation, Eco Action, Kaslo District Community Forest, and the Agri Spirit Fund.

This month Aimee Watson, the elected regional district representative for the area, and regional district chair Karen Hamling “have requested to meet with Ministers to present our case and specifically request the short -fall.  So far, these efforts have met with rejection or postponement,” an association news release says.

One of the difficulties in getting funding is the fact that no one is willing to fund a project in a hazard zone, explains John Lerbscher, a director of the association.

“We get people saying things like, ‘Why don’t you go into this area and do this or do that? It would cost you only $50,000.’ But the government won’t let you go into a hazard zone.”

The July 2012 mudslide destroyed the community’s water intake in Gar Creek. The community has not been able to rehabilitate that intake because it is located inside an RDCK-imposed evacuation zone that was in place until July 2014.

It is also within a defined hazard area that is still in effect with warnings such as “Even temporary or seasonal uses are subject to significant risk to the safety of your property and person, including life, by debris flows in the area.” In any event, the Interior Health Authority has determined that drinking water from the pre-slide source would be unsafe because of turbidity.

Since the slide, the community’s emergency source of water has been a spring that now feeds into a repaired water distribution system, but the privately owned spring’s availability is temporary and its volume is suitable for household use but not irrigation. During the growing season, the community adds water from Gar Creek to the mix, against the recommendation of the health authority.

Two alternative sources have been considered: drilling a well and getting water from the lake. A well was dug but the health authority tested that water and declared it unsafe to drink. The lake option has been discounted because of the cost of pumping water to the community at 500 feet (150 m) above lake level and because a nearby housing development that installed a similar lake intake is now having problems with slime formation in their system.

With those options rejected, the community decided the only viable water source was from Gar Creek above the slide. Studies have been done and permitting is in place including a health authority-approved plan to install water purification systems at each house rather than install a centralized purification system.

It’s ready to go, but the money is just not there.

“We feel we have followed the suitable political process,” says Lerbscher. “We have done our due diligence and brought the project to its current state. But we cannot bring the government to re-engage with us to get the funding we need. We are trying to refresh the political process, but we have no leverage, no political power.”

Watson says when it comes to government funding at any level, the issue does not fit into any box.

The regional district does not have the mandate or the resources to fund it. The Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development and the Ministry of Justice’s emergency measure program both say they have done all they can.

The last hope, says Watson, is the Ministry of Forests, and the association will be approaching them soon.

Contacted by the Star, a communications officer for the forests ministry said in an email the ministry of community speaks for the government on this issue. That ministry responded to the Star by email through a different government communications officer, stating that it provided $40,000 to the regional district following the slide, but  does not fund water systems.

In the legislature on Monday, the Minister of Community Sport and Cultural Development, Carolee Oakes, responded to a question from Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall about funding for Johnsons Landing water by saying “We look forward to supporting communities across the province with infrastructure funding,” and went on to discuss infrastructure spending for water systems without mentioning Johnson’s Landing.

Mungall responded that Oakes “hasn’t said no to the fake town of Jumbo, with no people and now no purpose. They get $300,000 per year and it sits in a bank on the other side of the mountain doing nothing.”

Lerbscher says the MP for Kootenay-Columbia visited Johnsons Landing recently.

“We had a very fruitful visit from David Wilks. He came to Johnsons Landing, listened to our presentation and then took a full tour of the slide including the proposed new water intake. We talked about some federal funding that might be available and will pursue this possibility.”

In the meantime, the water users’ group is looking for help from any politicians who will listen.

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