Who should fund Noble Creek water system upgrade?

The decision is ultimately political: How much do taxpayers want to subsidize farming?

As the City of Kamloops and farmers in north Westsyde using the Noble Creek water system remain at odds over who should pay for the $14-million worth of irrigation infrastructure upgrades needed, Kamloops This Week sought context to inform the question: Who should pay?

SYSTEM GRANDFATHERED
Noble Creek water users have relied on the irrigation system for a long time. The city’s utility service manager, Greg Wightman, said history of irrigation to the Noble Creek area dates back to 1901, when a British company built dams in the Jameson Lake area to provide water to Noble Creek, Westsyde and Brocklehurst, with the intention of selling parcels of land for farming.

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In 1973, the city inherited the system as part of amalgamation. At that time, the BC Fruitland Irrigation District provided not only irrigation water, but also domestic drinking water. Fast forward to 2010, when the city spent $5.5 million — a portion of which was covered by grant funding and some of which was funded by a local area service improvement program — to extend its potable drinking water from Kamloops Centre for Water Quality to Westsyde and Noble Creek.

The Noble Creek system no longer provided drinking water, but the city continued to operate it for irrigation and stock water, with the system essentially grandfathered in. Today, faced with infrastructure upgrade needs worth $14 million, the city — and, ultimately, Kamloops taxpayers — now face the question of whether to pay for upgrades. Farmers in the area, who have relied on the system, say covering the costs could cost them their livelihoods.

OTHER FARMS PAY OWN WAY
The city has a responsibility to provide residents with drinking water. However, it does not have a responsibility to provide irrigation water.

Wightman explained the Noble Creek Irrigation System is the only city system that provides agricultural properties with irrigation water. Meanwhile, the area is home to about 26 private irrigation systems. Private systems are owned and operated by individuals or water user communities, which are groups that rely on a water system and own, operate and fund their own systems.

For example, the Campbell Creek Water Users Community Association is owned and operated by the Blackwell family, which owns Blackwell Dairy Farm in Barnhartvale. The Thompson-Nicola Regional District does not own irrigation water systems. Monte Creek Ranch Winery is situated in the TNRD. Marketing manager Ashley Demedeiros said the winery has its own direct line into the South Thompson River, along with its own pumps and filtration systems. The water provides irrigation to the vineyard, hayfields and livestock. The winery is on the hook to cover any costs to its water system. “We manage all of that ourselves,” Demedeiros said. In addition, the winery also collects rainwater for use around the property. One advantage to private systems is control by water users.

Noble Creek water users have disputed the $14-million cost estimate, as reported by the city, calling it a “Cadillac” system. Wightman said cities need to build to certain standards.

COMMUNITIES FACE INFRASTRUCTURE DEFICITS
City of Kelowna utility services manager Kevin Van Vliet said cities do their best to include infrastructure replacement and upgrade costs in utility rates. However, he said many communities across Canada are facing infrastructure deficits, wherein they don’t collect or haven’t yet collected enough from taxpayers to fund renewal of all its infrastructure.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that on the very day Noble Creek water users attended a Kamloops council meeting to oppose a local area service improvement project to upgrade old infrastructure, the city also finalized an asset management plan.

“The real lesson — if there is one — is we have to look at how we fund renewal of all of our infrastructure and try to be more sustainably funded, which means paying a little bit more every year and focusing on that renewal,” Van Vliet said. “Every municipality struggles with that. It’s not that Kamloops is not doing a good job. We all have a deficit there, right across Canada.”

Kelowna is facing a situation similar to that of Kamloops, having recently inherited a water district from the province. Given provincial funding to improve drinking water, Kelowna simultaneously inherited a 50-year-old irrigation system, for which it had not been preparing to finance. Van Vliet said the city is still trying to figure out how to address that situation, but it is likely water rates will increase “substantially” over the coming decades and the city will also likely seek out grant funding, citing a federal agriculture irrigation grant program.

Noble Creek water users have criticized Kamloops for not increasing its water rates for several years and have also called on the city to seek out grant funding. Van Vliet also explained that in the 1960s and 1970s, the government of the day provided grants for farmers to build irrigation infrastructure. However, money was never set aside for fixing it or rebuilding later. With those systems now at the end of their lives, users are faced with a crisis because they can’t grow crops without water and no money has been put aside for replacement.

WHAT NEXT?
A local area service program, which would have seen the city chip in 20 per cent and users pay 80 per cent of the Noble Creek system’s $14-million project costs, was overturned by city council in the face of a potential counter-petition. Average Kamloops households would have had to pay an extra $13 per year for water to pay for the project, while 47 affected property owners would have split the remaining $11 million cost.

Water users turned up to a recent city council meeting, telling council they opposed the program. They said they spoke on behalf of 40 of the 47 property owners, suggesting the group could have defeated the project through a counter-petition process that had not yet launched.

With the local area service option now seemingly off the table, Wightman said staff will go back to council with more options at an unknown date. Other options include the city paying the entire $14 million, selling the system or decommissioning the system. The first option would appease users, but would result in a hefty increase for Kamloops ratepayers’ water bills.

The decision is ultimately political: How much do taxpayers want to subsidize farming? Meanwhile, Wightman said the system is at the end of its life and the longer the city waits, the more the costs are likely to increase.

© Kamloops This Week

 


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