The City of White Rock will enter into negotiations to take over its water utility, the mayor announced Monday evening.
Following a lengthy closed meeting, Wayne Baldwin confirmed council had voted unanimously to provide notice to Edmonton-based Epcor of the city’s intention to assume ownership of its water utility, and to authorize staff to commence negotiations with Epcor for the purchase.
The news garnered applause and calls of “congratulations” and “thank you” from council attendees.
Baldwin described the decision as “a first step.” It followed review of a business case for the move that was prepared by staff at the request of council. That request came in the midst of water-supplier Epcor’s application to B.C.’s deputy comptroller of water rights for approval to carry out $11-12 million in upgrades to the city’s water system.
Epcor’s Total Water Quality Management project also aims to abide by a Fraser Health order to chlorinate the system by 2016.
As an intervenor in the application, White Rock had asked for a postponement of the regulator’s decision until after the business case was complete. The city has to submit its case for taking over by June 17.
Baldwin said taking over the water utility is a “bold” move that will require the city to take on “big debt.”
“We’ve gone through the financials. We believe it’s in the best interest of taxpayers,” he told Peace Arch News after the meeting.
He emphasized the decision was strictly financial.
“It’s not a health concern, it’s not a service concern,” Baldwin said, describing Epcor as “beyond reproach” technically.
However, the company “probably won’t” be interested in selling, Baldwin acknowledged.
Should that be the case, the city could explore expropriation, Baldwin said – although that route is not the preferred direction.
“One way or the other, we think we can pull this through.”
Contacted Tuesday, Epcor spokesperson Tim Le Riche said Epcor respects the city’s right to consider its options.
“If they come to us looking to have some discussions, then we’ll have some discussions,” Le Riche said.
Taking over the water service would not necessarily mean the end of Epcor, however. The company could be contracted by the city to operate it, Baldwin said – a move that would make the changeover “seamless.”
Another option that had been considered was to tie into the Metro Vancouver system. In a letter to city manager Dan Bottrill that was leaked to PAN last week, that connection was favoured by Fraser Health in the interest of reducing arsenic levels.
Coun. Helen Fathers told PAN Tuesday that according to the city’s business case, it would make better financial sense to stay with the existing system.
“Looking at the numbers, the best solution right now would be to stay with the Sunnyside aquifer,” she said.
Baldwin noted White Rock is one of few municipalities that doesn’t own its water utility.
“We’re not going into new ground at all. Right now, we’re not the norm.”
Supporters who turned out for the announcement said they were happy with the news but still have questions.
“The negotiations and who the negotiators are is critical because there’s a lot at stake for the City of White Rock water users,” said Margaret Woods, a former city councillor, Epcor application intervenor and member of the White Rock Accountable Water Committee – a citizen group formed in support of the city taking over the water utility.
Fellow committee member and intervenor Phil Le Good said he is concerned with a statement by Baldwin regarding the city’s support for Epcor’s Total Water Quality Management Project.
It came in response to a question by Woods during question period, regarding what the city will submit to the comptroller.
“What we’re saying to the comptroller is the Total Water Quality Management program is fine,” Baldwin said. “We have no problem with it.”
Fathers said her understanding is the water-quality program will have to go ahead regardless of who is looking after the system.
“It’s been mandated by Fraser Health,” she said, referring to directions from the health authority – including chlorination – that were triggered by a 2010 boil-water advisory.
Baldwin could not predict how long the upcoming process would take.
“We do want to take some action as quickly as possible,” he said. “We’re not going to sit around.”