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Qualicum Beach raises spectre of referendum for AWS

The Arrowsmith dam and its water supply are the focus of talks between Qualicum Beach, Parksville and the RDN. - file photo
The Arrowsmith dam and its water supply are the focus of talks between Qualicum Beach, Parksville and the RDN.
— image credit: file photo

If the Town of Qualicum Beach goes ahead with their current 13.7 per cent share of the Arrowsmith water system, residents would find themselves going to the polls in a referendum.

Mayor Teunis Westbroek said the town’s share of the approximately $50 million project would be about $6.8 million, which he said could be amortized over a 20-year period.

“That would mean a per-parcel tax increase of about $75 a year,” Westbroek said. “We couldn’t get around borrowing that internally, so we couldn’t raise that kind of money without going to referendum to borrow $6.8 million.”

He said the proposal to reduce the town’s share to six per cent would cost taxpayers between $35 and $40 and would still require a referendum. He said going with the full amount would allow the municipality to help other areas, should they require extra water — and even make some money from doing so.

“I’m in favor of honouring agreements,” he said, “but we also have to respect the will of the residents, so if we are going to go with the agreement for the dam, intake and treatment plant, which is in place now, we could stop there and sell water to areas that need water more than we do. If the public says no, we want to stick with agreement and having access for the full project at 13.7 per cent, here’s the cost.”

He said cutting the town’s share to six per cent could put pressure on other areas that hadn’t counted on picking up the extra cost. Keeping the full amount, he added, could also give Qualicum Beach a valuable bargaining chip.

“If we work with our partners and co-operate as a region ... we could work with them to get access to water from the Little Qualicum,” he said.  “We could help areas around us like French Creek, we could provide water to them.”

The key, he said, is for the town to be transparent.

“We need to be upfront with the people,” he said. “Numbers like that and the calculation of who pays what needs to be up front. This is public information.”

Westbroek said the AWS project gives the municipality a valuable potential water source, along with the Berwick and Little Qualicum well fields.

“It’s like insurance,” he said. “If there is an earthquake and the wells fail, we have another source.”

He noted voters in Nanoose Bay and French Creek went to referendum on the AWS and both areas passed the measure. He said once Qualicum Beach residents get all the facts, he’s confident they would do the same.

“By working together with the regional district, we can achieve a position for Qualicum Beach that would be the envy of Canada, with pristine water from a variety of sources,” he said.

“In future, if we need more water, we have options and if there is a low snowpack and the aquifer is low, we have other options. I think we’re covering all the bases.”

As with most issues however, he said it all boils down to money.

“We have to tell people it’s a great plan, but here’s the cost, here’s the bottom line for you.”

Carol Mason, the chief administrative officer for the Regional District of Nanaimo, noted not only Qualicum  Beach, but also the RDN and City of Parksville would require referendums for the next phase of the AWS, although she cautioned it’s too early to detail exactly what those costs would be.

“The cost will be such that we don’t have the borrowing authority to pay for the full cost of the next phase,” she said. “We are just finalizing the costs now and we will be in a position in the next few weeks to release the costs for the intake and the treatment plant, along with related costs.”

She added that the current agreement is not clear about what would happen if Qualicum Beach were to attempt to divest itself of some of its share in the AWS.

“The language doesn’t really provide great clarity about how one participant can transfer their interest to another participant,” she said. “We are looking at language in a new agreement to deal with that.”

In a media release, the City of Parksville said elected officials in Qualicum Beach made premature statements about the future of the AWS.

They state a report on costs of the next phase of the water service expansion — including water treatment — has yet to be completed.

The city said releasing information on the location of such services would have been premature and could jeopardize plans to buy land.

The release noted the entire report will eventually be made public.

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