Region needs to spend millions more on water

By Allan Benner, The Standard

Niagara’s aging infrastructure is bound to cost ratepayers in years to come.

Niagara Region public works commissioner Ron Tripp said the roughly $40 million a year the municipality currently spends on its water and sewer infrastructure is a far cry from the $135 million that it ought to be spending.

“We need to somehow deal with the gap between the two,” Tripp told members of Niagara’s public works committee during a meeting Tuesday.

“We have numerous challenges and not many quick fixes.”

And within the confines set out by council, to keep rate increases within two per cent, Tripp said regional staff have “limited ability to close that gap.”

Tripp said other Ontario communities have dealt with their infrastructure deficits through “aggressive” increases in water/sewer charges.

“York Region is probably the most aggressive that I’ve seen in terms of a financial plan and tackling infrastructure needs with raises in the rates,” he said, referring to nine per cent increases that community is planning in each year from 2016 to 2020, followed by a 2.9 per cent increase planned for 2021.

Sudbury increased its rates by four per cent in 2015, and by 7.4 per cent in both 2016 and 2017; while Hamilton rates went up by 4.2 per cent in 2015, 4.7 per cent in 2016 and 4.85 per cent this year.

“They’re raising the rates incrementally which is then transferred directly to capital reserves to fund the programs that they have to do,” Tripp said.

Niagara, he added, eventually will have to follow suit.

“We will have to — it’s inevitable — deal with the same challenge,” he said.

“We’re not alone in this, but we have to work together towards a solution.”

Currently, the Region is spending $65 million on building the new water treatment plant in Welland, about $16.5 million on an aeration system installed in Port Dalhousie, and the construction of a new wastewater treatment plant in southern Niagara Falls, slated to start next year, is expected to cost about $128 million by the time it’s complete.

But additional upgrades will be required in years to come.

For instance, Tripp said, the Region’s water and sewer treatment facilities lack redundancies.

“The bottom line is that when it comes to water and wastewater, there’s no backup system if the current one fails,” he said. “We must keep our current system functioning and improving.”

Adding back up systems would cost tens of millions of dollars, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, provincial and federal regulations are often being updated, requiring municipalities like Niagara to enhance or replace water and sewer infrastructure “to make sure we continue to comply.”

Tripp said Niagara has funds available to sustain its programs throughout 2018, but next year Region staff will develop a strategy for years to come. The strategy “will have a number of initiatives involved in it to put us on the right path towards closing that gap.”

More analysis needs to be done to determine the local impact on rates.

“We have better information now than we’ve ever had,” he said. “We have to bring it all together and continue the strategy.”

Several councillors supported an aggressive approach to increasing infrastructure funding.

Niagara-on-the-Lake Coun. Gary Burroughs said the Region “definitely needs to take an aggressive stance to catch up and keep up (with costs) on the wastewater side.”

Niagara Falls Coun. Selina Volpatti said development charges should also help close the funding gap.