The Town of Qualicum Beach wants to sell just over half of its share in the Arrowsmith Water Service to the Regional District of Nanaimo.
This prospect has suddenly sent local politicians into closed-door meetings to figure out what to do about it.
Upgrades planned to the service over the next five years have been priced at $50 million, of which Qualicum Beach, under the current agreement, would be on the hook for $6,850,000. That cost, said Councillor Barry Avis, is too high for the municipality to reasonably bear, considering they currently receive no water from the service, have no pipeline to get water from the Arrowsmith dam and likely won’t need their full 13 per cent share any time soon.
“We have a better water supply here, with Cameron Lake,” Avis said.
Avis moved that council reduce their participation in the service to six per cent, but keep the current funding agreement in place until June, in order to allow for cost sharing and voting arrangements to be sorted out.
He said, unlike Qualicum Beach, some of the rural areas, in particular Nanoose Bay, have a high need for the service and he suggested selling the town’s excess capacity to the RDN for that purpose.
Avis, who sits as council’s representative on the AWS, said the municipality pays approximately $400,000 a year to remain in the water system program. He said he warned as far back as 2007 that the town would have to make a tough decision about its participation, noting the growth patterns experience in the southern part of Oceanside were not anticipated when the Arrowsmith Water Service was originally set up.
Avis’ suggestion didn’t flow entirely smoothly, with Coun. Mary Brouilette arguing strongly against it.
“Nothing is more important than our water,” she said. “I don’t think we have done our homework on this. It’s not prudent to reduce our backup to six per cent before we have any options for other sources of water.”
Engineer Bob Weir waded into the issue, suggesting that while the current water supply is good for now, it doesn’t have the excess capacity to deal with issues such as climate change.
“For that reason I continue to ask council to seek more redundancy in the water supplies.”
Coun. Kent Becker disagreed however, noting the municipality can obtain water from Cameron Lake at a far lesser cost than from the Englishman River.
“The last report I saw indicated we had adequate water based on our current OCP to 2040 and any shortage would be minimal,” he said. “What is the purpose of this, to expedite the development of Parksville right out to Nanoose Bay? Are the taxpayers of this community going to be asked to foot the bill?”
Avis noted the town has spent “a couple of million dollars” improving the water system in Qualicum Beach, including the installation of an ultraviolet disinfection system and he doesn’t think the burden of Mount Arrowsmith water should be put on the shoulders of local taxpayers. He also noted the remaining six per cent stake in the system would amount to half the current water use in the town combined.
Brouilette fought back, noting the town has no water rights to Cameron Lake.
Hers was the only voice in opposition though, and the motion to reduce the town’s share passed. Coun. Jack Wilson was not present.
Commenting on the vote, former councillor Scott Tanner, who sat on the board of the AWS during his tenure on council, noted the issue had required two referendums in 1996, the first of which included Qualicum Beach. This referendum failed. A second referendum, this time not including Qualicum Beach, passed.
“The rationale was that it was a borrowing bylaw and Qualicum Beach was in a fortunate position of having enough money in reserve that they didn’t have to borrow,” Tanner said in an interview. “The AWS is a white elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”