Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink
Lottie Lake residents fume over potential improvement tax to fix water system
Residents from the hamlet of Lottie Lake gathered at Cork Hall last Thursday to voice strong opposition to the possibility of the County of St. Paul enforcing a Local Improvement Tax to upgrade the local water distribution system. But there was more on residents’ minds than just a tax, as many concerns about the community’s current water quality also arose.
The meeting was emotional and heated right from the beginning, as CAO Sheila Kitz attempted to offer background on the water situation within the county.
“This is a really important issue,” said Kitz, adding she was happy to see so many residents in attendance. When offering the history of the situation, Kitz backed up to 2007, which is when the county applied to the province to upgrade the Lottie Lake water treatment plant. The county never received that money because it decided to complete a regional water study, which then recommended Ashmont become the hub for Lottie Lake, and eventually Mallaig as well. The previously approved funds were then transferred to the Ashmont project that is currently underway.
“The province wants to see fewer (water) treatment plants,” said Kitz.
As per the study that was done, the 25 to 30 year vision is to supply Lottie Lake, Ashmont and Mallaig with water from St. Paul and upgrading the Ashmont treatment plant is a 20-year solution, said Matt Brassard, an engineer with Urban Systems, also in attendance at last week’s meeting.
The transmission line to bring water from Ashmont to Lottie Lake is nearly complete, and the province is funding 90 per cent of that project. An upgrade to the Ashmont water treatment plant could be complete in a year’s time, as pilot testing is currently underway. Another option is for a line to be built to bring water to Ashmont and Lottie Lake from Spedden, heard residents.
Aside from requiring more and improved water in Lottie Lake, the distribution system that brings water from the current treatment plant to residents’ homes is in need of upgrading.
Also, there is “some sort of a phantom leak that can’t be found,” said Kitz, and so water is being trucked into the hamlet regularly to ensure residents have water in their taps.
According to the county’s water policy, users will be required to pay for upgrades to the system, much like a farmer who has to pay for his own well, said Kitz.
Distribution systems are a municipal responsibility, not a provincial one, heard residents.
Those in attendance were not happy to hear this and interrupted Kitz’s presentation and demanded answers to a number of concerns regarding the water system. Residents felt the current water going through the pipes wasn’t safe to drink, and a few residents even brought jars with water recently taken out of their taps to show councillors.
Gene Pidoborozny questioned county representatives throughout Thursday’s meeting, wanting answers to why the water coming from his tap appeared so dirty. He believes the water is not safe to drink.
“If I had your water, I’d be upset too,” said Coun. Maxine Fodness, as she tried to calm residents. She explained that if a solution was to be found, residents would have to set emotions aside and proceed in a courteous fashion.
Residents also suggested that instead of Reeve Steve Upham chairing the meeting, that Brassard conduct the meeting, to which he agreed.
Kitz resumed her presentation and told residents the county was not trying to push the Local Improvement Tax down their throats. But she also explained that last year’s operating cost for the Lottie Lake water system was $35,000, but the county only charged residents $18,000.
She said council is struggling with the idea of subsidizing one group, when other ratepayers aren’t being subsidized for their water. If Lottie Lake residents don’t support the tax, then the county will have to start charging residents the full cost of bringing in water.
When questioned about the alleged high concentration of chlorine in the water, Brassard said he could not answer that question. He did say that he doesn’t believe the Lottie Lake water system wasn’t built to accommodate the amount of people now using it and Upham said the water is sent to a lab in Edmonton weekly for testing.
Everyone needs to recognize the age of the system and that sooner or later it will start leaking and breaking, said Brassard.
According to information handed out at the meeting, the distribution system is between 40 and 50 years old. The system is not looped, which is the more modern way to design a system. It also lacks pressure and is undersized.
“Your pipes are old,” said Brassard, adding, the pipes are dirty and he is “somewhat hesitant” to pressurize and flush the lines because it could cause a bunch of leaks in the system.
If the distribution system were to be rebuilt, Brassard says it will cost about $10,000 per lot, although he affirmed this was just an early estimate and council could decide to divide the cost differently amongst residents. For example, council could choose to divide the total cost based on the assessed value of the properties in Lottie Lake.
“Most of us can’t afford this,” said one resident who attended Thursday’s meeting, when the costs were being discussed.
Some residents believe the county should be responsible for the state of the water system, since the municipality inherited the system years ago and “they put us in this situation through neglect,” said one resident.
Another resident asked why the system wasn’t previously maintained to avoid the current situation.
“You are not unique as a community,” said Brassard, adding, many small municipalities are facing similar issues with aging infrastructure.
In response to questions regarding where ratepayers’ taxes are going, Kitz explained that general taxes shouldn’t be directed to pay for a utility, since utilities should, in theory, pay for themselves and users should be paying enough to fix or replace the system when needed, to which a resident responded by saying he didn’t understand how he was responsible for “the county’s failure to maintain the system.”
Another resident alleged that the system is failing because of the water that is going through the pipes, which he believes is the county’s responsibility.
Brassard explained that if residents decide to continue with the system as it is, their cost will increase regardless. The county will fix the system as it breaks, but those costs will be passed on to the users.
During another heated discussion, one resident requested a forensic audit of the county, so residents can see where their tax dollars are going.
As the meeting came to a close, Fodness again explained to residents that if the distribution lines aren’t replaced and water continues to be lost, residents will start paying for the lost water. She also added that even when upgraded water starts flowing through the pipes next year, the water coming from the tap will still appear dirty because of the aging distribution system.
As for the mysterious leak within the water system, Kitz said that divers are expected to enter and inspect the reservoirs this week.
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