COLUMN: The start of something big

City of White Rock potential purchase of water utility could set stage for bigger changes

The possibility of the City of White Rock buying out its privately owned water utility may have ramifications for many far beyond the White Rock municipal boundary.

The city is looking into the business case of taking over the White Rock waterworks, which is now owned by Epcor.

Curiously enough, Epcor itself is a subsidiary of the City of Edmonton, and is a company that has its roots in Edmonton’s municipal water system.

White Rock residents are among a very few in the Metro Vancouver area who do not have access to municipally distributed water. Most residents, including almost all Surrey residents, get their water from three major reservoirs owned by the Greater Vancouver Water District, a subsidiary of Metro Vancouver.

In Surrey’s case, it has been getting water from the regional system since 1939. The only Surrey residents who do not have access to that water supply are a few in rural areas who rely on their own wells and some who live near the White Rock border and are served by Epcor.

For the most part, the Metro Vancouver water system has been a good one. Some extremely expensive upgrades in the past decade have drastically boosted the cost of water to residents, but it still remains affordable. Most important, the water is clean and it tastes good. Water quality testing is done constantly.

If White Rock goes ahead with the purchase, which is not a sure thing, where would the money come from?

The city isn’t flush with cash and has a limited ability to raise additional funds. While it can borrow money to buy the utility, the costs of that borrowing would be borne by taxpayers.

It is quite likely that, if the city took over the waterworks, it could be linked to the larger Metro Vancouver water system, and the existing wells could either be abandoned or used as a backup system.

That could also involve some additional expense to taxpayers, given the ongoing upgrades of the regional water system.

The question that keeps lingering in my mind is this – if White Rock buys the waterworks, and the expenses go beyond those projected by administrators, would that be the final step towards White Rock reuniting with Surrey?

This isn’t wishful thinking. Ultimately, it will be up to White Rock residents to determine if they want to go in that direction. But past cases in B.C. indicate that major expenditures that go sideways often lead to municipal amalgamation.

The most relevant recent case was in Abbotsford in the 1990s. The District of Abbotsford, which was a conservatively run organization, ran into some unexpected expenses within its water system, which largely used wells.

It was the issue that led eventually to the uniting of Matsqui and Abbotsford under the Abbotsford name. Matsqui had a modern water system, with a supply from Norrish Creek in Mission, and had other infrastructure in place that made a merger logical.

White Rock has less room to maneuver than Abbotsford did at that time. It has a very limited geographical base, a small commercial tax base and property taxes that are already quite high. Its options, in the case of a major unexpected expense, would be quite limited.

I see no movement in Surrey to have White Rock come back. But if the City of White Rock asked if that was an option, I’d be surprised if Surrey responded with a flat “no.”

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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