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Water conservation sinks in favour of cost recovery

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In Barrie
Nov 5th, 2009
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By Laurie Watt Barrie Advance
Barrie can’t afford to base its water and sewer rates on a system that encourages conservation, city staff say.
After more than an hour of debate in general committee Monday and an array of motions that sunk, councillors finally agreed to a policy that enables the city to recover more of its rising water and wastewater system costs through a fixed charge.
The proposed plan also reduces the premium for high-water use from 70 per cent to 50 per cent, and reduces the number of usage tiers, each which has its own rate.
The proposal also sets the stage for a budget-time discussion on increasing water rates 11 per cent and wastewater rates by 16 per cent.
The decision could still be changed at next Monday’s full council meeting.
Councillors wrangled with the idea of discouraging conservation, and changing the water and wastewater billing system to one that charges a higher fixed rate.
“We have seen increases of almost 30 per cent (in these rates) over the past several years.
(Residents) are cutting back (water use) and they’re having to pay more. Where’s the reward, apart from the altruistic thoughts for the environment?” said Ward 1 Coun. Mike Ramsay.
The conundrum occurs because the city can’t afford to base the money needed to run its water and wastewater systems on rates that encourage and reward conservation, staff says.
Consumption in Barrie has been dropping, despite growth, and is forecast to drop 4.1 per cent over the next year, a consultant’s review noted. That’s due to an array of factors, explained the city’s community services general manager Jim Sales.
“With intensification, with condos and apartments, people don’t have big yards to water. Most homes have low-flow toilets and reduced-flow showerheads and EnergyStar washing machines. The usage per person is reduced,” he explained.
“Also in Barrie, we have more families commuting and both parents working, so … we’re spending less time there and using less water.”
Yet, the city must meet stringent provincial standards for drinking water and wastewater effluent, which come with costs for monitoring, testing and upgrades, including a $150-million new surface water treatment plant and an $80-million upgrade and expansion of the sewage treatment plant, Sales added.
That leaves the city vulnerable in funding its water system if it continues its practice of rewarding low use.
“We can’t have a system that relies on usage (for funding), but on a fixed rate that covers the costs of providing the services,” Sales said.
More-stringent drinking water regulations in the wake of the Walkerton tragedy in 2000 force municipalities to do more testing to prove drinking water meets provincial standards, he explained.
On the wastewater system, the city must meet stricter criteria too – including the Lake Simcoe Protection Act – to ensure treated effluent going into the lake is as clean as possible.
“Under legislation in the post-Walkerton era, we have the Safe Water Drinking Act and there are many more requirements. In the last month, Barrie was successful in getting its drinking water quality management system approved. It shows the province we’re adhering to their regulations and we’re delivering safe water. You have to demonstrate it through (regular) sampling and testing.”
Barrie’s plans to simplify the system and phase in the new fixed-rate over five years to minimize impact on consumers, as well as examine how new billing technologies can save the city money.

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