A public forum on drinking water drew about 60 people to White Rock’s First United Church Monday.
Organized in support of the City of White Rock’s decision to explore whether it should try to purchase its water utility – a business case that is expected to be shared at next Monday’s council meeting – it was presented by the White Rock Accountable Water Committee, CUPE BC Water Watch and the Council of Canadians.
The forum included a presentation by Cornell University Prof. Mildred Warner, who was in town for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Vancouver.
Werner told attendees she did not have the details of White Rock’s situation. Instead, she shared research on what she described as the trend towards “remunicipalization” of water. While the movement has been largely driven by frustration with quality and rates, evidence has found little difference between private and public water provision, she said.
An inter-municipal contract – which White Rock would pursue with Metro Vancouver, should it take over its water utility – is not without its own complications, she noted.
“There’s still concerns with accountability, there’s still concerns with control,” she said.
Concerns with White Rock’s existing water supply – currently provided by Edmonton-based Epcor – include that it contains arsenic and manganese. Epcor has applied to the deputy comptroller of water rights for approval to undertake $11-12 million in upgrades to the system, including chlorination; treating for arsenic, if deemed necessary, would add $8-10 million to the tab.
Former city councillor Margaret Woods, a member of the committee that organized the forum, told attendees it is “imperative” that drinking water be publicly owned, and that if citizens have to pay for upgrades, it’s better that the money stay in the community. Woods, along with panelist Phil Le Good, was among more than a dozen individuals who registered as intervenors in Epcor’s application.
Attendees questioned what it would cost White Rock to buy the utility; if the water rate is negotiable; why the city didn’t buy the utility earlier; and what resolution there is for the Semiahmoo First Nation, which has had to boil its drinking water since 2005.
SFN councillor Joanne Charles told the crowd there is no easy solution for the band, which also receives its water from Epcor.
“It’s hard to talk about a lot of this because we don’t have the same services as what’s on the other side of the bridge,” Charles said.
Near the end of the forum, Le Good left the panel to ask Warner to expand on issues of accountability in a publicly held system.
Warner encouraged those looking into the concept not to be “naive” and assume neighbouring cities have the same values as those seeking to contract the service.
Next up, the committee will present a free screening of the documentary Water Makes Money. The show is set for 7 p.m. June 18 at First United Church, 15385 Semiahmoo Ave., with discussion to follow.