A decision by B.C.’s deputy comptroller of water rights to green-light Epcor’s planned upgrades to White Rock’s water system will have no impact on the city’s plans to acquire ownership of its water utility.
Mayor Wayne Baldwin said the decision, handed down June 27, has no bearing on plans to secure ownership of White Rock’s water supply “either through purchase or, if necessary, expropriation.”
Baldwin said he is satisfied the $11-12 million in upgrades included in Epcor’s Total Water Quality Management (TWQM) project would be necessary even if the city already owned the utility – particularly new infrastructure and an improved water chlorination delivery system called for following an August 2010 boil-water order due to contamination by coliform bacteria.
“To have the chlorination ability – there’s no question about that,” Baldwin said Monday.
“It’s mandated by Fraser Health. We have to do it.”
A press release from community group White Rock Accountable Water Committee said the decision by the deputy comptroller leaves “several critical questions” unanswered.
“The decision fails to address questions we’ve raised about arsenic treatment, public ownership and rate increases associated with keeping White Rock’s water in the hands of a for-profit Alberta firm,” states committee member Margaret Woods.
“As far as we’re concerned, the council does not have enough documentation to make an informed decision about the future of our water utility.”
But Baldwin said city ownership of its water utility could have a significant impact on the costs of the project to White Rock consumers, who will be expected to shoulder part of Edmonton-based Epcor’s expenditure in the form of rate or fee increases.
“The city would have no profit margin, so we could take that away,” he said, adding the current water-rights grant guarantees Epcor a return of 10.5 per cent on its investment.
“We also have a borrowing capacity at an amount substantially less than Epcor is charged to borrow for construction. That’s our financial edge.”
Baldwin said the city’s submission on the TWMQ plan made it clear that White Rock “should be part of the overall process” of ensuring water quality – although the city has no doubt about Epcor’s ability to maintain a high standard.
The eventual removal of arsenic and manganese from the water continues to a concern, he said.
Baldwin said the city’s investigation of connecting with the Metro Vancouver water system has shown it would be prohibitively expensive.
The city’s position is that a 1922 agreement between Surrey and the original utility – renewed routinely over the years as municipal governments and utility ownerships changed – still ensures White Rock’s legal right to acquire ownership of its water supply.
“We believe it’s for the greater good of the public – we wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t financially viable,” Baldwin said. “We’re not sure how long negotiation is going to take or if it will be necessary to go to expropriation. I think it would be a year or two before the whole thing is complete.”
Epcor currently nets around $200,000 per year from the city – an amount he said would be “considerably greater” once the TWQM plan is in effect.
“They would lose that, but there’s a reasonably good chance, if we acquire it, that we would contract back the operation to them.”