City CAO discusses water meter details

A Q and A with Grand Forks chief administrative officer Doug Allin on water meters.

With the recent uproar over council’s decision to install water meters, the Gazette sat down with Doug Allin, city chief administrative officer, to discuss the issue and ask many of the questions that have been brought up recently by the public.Gazette: How many other communities in B.C. have water meters?Allin: I’ve got a list of approximately 120 municipalities in B.C. (out of around 190) that vary on the type of metering they have. They go from universally metered (Abbotsford, Armstrong, Barriere, for example) to partial metering, which is what Grand Forks currently has.We already have meters for institutional, industrial and commercial in our community and we have had them in for a number of years.Gazette: What are the benefits of using residential water meters?Allin: It’s more of a community benefit. Number 1: is long-term protection of the aquifer; to reduce our water consumption from the aquifer; Number 2 is a reduction in our consumption; In peak periods, our pumps are running at maximum capacity. It would be like driving down the highway in second gear. We know what the RPMs would be for that car. It would be working really hard. We want to put it to a point where our pumps are working at maximum efficiency. It would be like they’re going in fourth gear. So they’re almost cruising; Number 3:  It can defer major infrastructure cost. In Port Algen, Ontario, because their water consumption was so high they were going to have to expand their water treatment plant to the tune of $5.5 million to satisfy the need for water. Instead, they put in $500,000 in water meters and people began to conserve water and they were able to defer the cost of expanding the water treatment plan. They didn’t need all the extra storage capacity or extra treatment capacity.Allin said the Algen situation would be similar to Grand Forks with the West end reservoir. The need for building the $6 million reservoir would be deferred as a result of us being able to reduce our consumption.Ultimately, it means less impact to the taxpayer when it comes to cost. Allin added that they don’t know what the environmental benefits are going to be. We know there will be a reduction in our green house gases because we’re going to be using less power to draw water out of the aquifer. There will be reduced sewage treatment plant costs, because their will be less water going into the sewage treatment plant. Our operational costs will be reduced as well. Potential savings in labour as we reduce overtime because we run into overtime as we run our systems so hard.G: Will people’s water bills go up?A: At this point, it’s too hard for us to say whether the rates will go up or not. That’s a political decision. (Council sets the residential water rates) Everything I’m hearing from council is that they want to analyze the water rates to see what the needs are. I’d like to say no, but it’s not my decision. I think the intention of the water metering program was not for people’s rates to go up, but to see all the benefits.G: Will people with big gardens and/or with big families see their rates go up?A: This is a situation where as we learn to use our water more efficiently – it’s a user pay system. Water consumption within the household is typically not the issue. The big issue is outside irrigation and over-consumption of water during peak period. That doesn’t mean you have to shut your sprinklers off. We merely suggest you just use your water more efficiently and give your lawn what it needs. The intention of the program is not to increase the rates of our customers, it’s to ensure that we’re conserving water and managing the resource.G: Is this a money grab for the City?A: This is a democratic process. The elected officials (in council) are elected as representatives of the community. The business of the community is not to get cash from the residents just to have extra money for certain things. The business of the community is to ensure that it works for the best needs of the community.So in no way is this a cash grab for the City whatsoever. This is a representative decision to run the utility and preserve the water the best way we can.G: What about the question of coercion from the government? Eg. You must install water meters to get this grant money.A: Our community is required to check boxes off to ensure we qualify for grants. The provincial and federal government put specific criteria on us to make sure we’re managing our business in the best way we can in the standards that are prescribed for us. It’s not coercion in that respect, they’re just making sure we’re checking off the right boxes.Water metering is tried and tested as the best way to manage water consumption in the community. We have to conserve. It’s nothing new. Water meters have been around for 30 or 40 years.The provincial government is making sure we operate our utilities the best way we can. Ultimately, they are on the hook if they have to come in and save us. Why all the fuss?I think water metering has a bunch of perceived connotations associated with it. I can’t speak to why people are having reservations. There is just so much information out there about the water meters that it’s hard for us to lay in all on the table because it’s so complicated. Council and staff are working so hard behind the scenes to set things up and its going so quickly.There was a resolution in 1999 from council telling staff to proceed with universal water meters. This is a situation that’s been in the public eye for many years.The only thing I can say is, I would like to have, on behalf of council, got the message out so there wasn’t a lack of information for the public.There was never any intention from our organization to do that.With any situation that arises, there are always people for it and against it. In a democracy, that’s always the case.I can’t speak to why; some people just fundamentally disagree and in a democratic society that’s their privilege.G: Was the petition binding at all? Could council have gone to a referendum?A: Referendums are typically done when a city is borrowing money. That being said, the referendum question can exist at the will of council.The petition that went around – it’s up to council to accept the petition or not. The main questions that were asked: 1. To rescind the motion to install residential water meters.  That motion was put on the floor (by councillor Michael Wirischagin) but was not seconded therefore it was quashed. 2. To follow the timeline as it appeared in the mail out that went along with the utility bills to not install water meters until 2015.  The one document we sent out did say that and we did apologize for that typo. All the other documentation stated that the installation would begin in 2014 and that the mock billing would start in 2015. After that, council would look at determining the billing rate. Council has already said they want input from the customers on that. At that point, it’s going to take some understanding of how we’re consuming our water because we don’t know all the pieces in that. This will give us a better idea of how our water is being allocated in our community. 3. Hold town hall meetings in 2014 focusing on discussions of pros and cons of water meters.That’s been going on since 1999. 4. Debate the issue during the 2014 election campaign.That’s up to the candidates who are running.G: Why is Grand Forks’ water consumption so high compared to the national average?A: Our situation is not unique to a lot of communities in B.C. For instance, we have very similar weather patterns to the Okanagan. Our water use is dependent on where you’re located. There’s many differing pieces. The contributing factors are climate, demographics, industry, all kinds of things play into it.The only thing we can say is the customer’s were right – there are many different factors.FACTOIDS:The expected $1.3 million expense for the water meter installation is coming from the City’s gas tax funding.The City receives that money from the government and it comes from taxes at the gas pump and so on.The gas tax money, which council has been saving, can only be spent on projects deemed “green”.Easy water smart tips (from Living Water Smart website):British Columbians use much more water than they need to. Conserving water reduces our need for treated drinking water and wastewater treatment, as well as water infrastructure. Water conservation saves you and your community money and reduces our impact on the environment. This page has many easy and inexpensive ways you can be part of the solution. Complete a home water assessment. The Water Smart Home Assessment is an activity you can do with the whole family – kids will love being involved in measuring and timing! Compare your usual practices with those that are the most water smart, and identify steps to reduce your water usage and impact. Saving Water InsideThink water efficient next time you buy products like washing machines, dishwashers, fridges, irrigation systems, taps and toilets. •    Replace your toilet with a low-flow or dual flush model. A new “6 litre per flush” model will save you up to over 25,000 litres per year for a typical family. A dual flush model can save an average of ~26% more water than a 6 litre low flow toilet. •    Don’t use your toilet as a waste basket and remember you don’t have to flush every time! •    Shower under a low-flow showerhead (9 litres of water per minute). This will save up the average family up to 20,000 litres/year. You’ll also save money on your energy bill by heating much less water. •    Next time you have to replace your washing machine, look for a water efficient front loading model. These models also require less energy and save money in the long term. •    Even something as simple as turning off the tap when you brush your teeth or wash vegetables will save up to 20 litres a minute. This adds up to hundreds of litres a year. •    Leaks and dripping taps are an unnecessary waste of water. Even a small leak can add up to hundreds of litres a year. Saving Water OutsideGarden watering is the biggest water use in the average home – often more than one-third of water use occurs outdoors. An average garden hose uses up to 20 litres per minute. •    Landscape using native or drought-resistant plants and garden designs that minimize water use. •    Watering twice a week for less than an hour should be more than enough. Most plants will thrive with far less water than we currently use. •    Collect rainwater for watering the garden. Water the roots of your plants, instead of the leaves, with an efficient method like drip irrigation. •    Watch the weather before watering the garden. If rain is predicted, let Mother Nature take care of the job for you. Avoid watering in windy or hot conditions, when the vast majority of water will be lost to evaporation. •    Another great way to save water is to use a broom to sweep driveways and paths instead of the garden hose. You get a great bit of exercise this way too. •    Apply a layer of mulch on your garden beds and leave the grass a little bit longer. You’ll save work by watering less frequently and mowing the lawn less often.Ways to protect quality •    Share your smart water choices with friends and neighbours. •    Don’t throw chemicals or toxic solids down the sink, toilet or storm drains. They pollute the environment and cause bad water quality issues that are costly to fix. •    Buy low phosphate or phosphate free detergents – look at the labels at the store to work out which one is best for your needs. •    Use fertilizer and compost in the right quantity. Extra fertilizer runs off your garden when it rains and the extra growth that fertilizer promotes can negatively impact creeks, rivers and the ocean. •    Drive your car onto the grass when you are going to wash it and remember more soap and chemicals isn’t better! •    Check out or Go Blue for lots more tips and tools to save water at home, on the farm, at work and in your community. •    Make sure your actions don’t pollute or harm the environment. Reduce the use of hazardous products in your home and garden. •    Reduce or eliminate the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Avoid applying them close to a well •    Take paints, oils, batteries and other hazardous materials to the nearest recycling or collection facility •    Do not pour anything but water into storm sewer grates – these sewers flow directly into waterways •    If you are on a septic system, ensure that it is regularly maintained

Grand Forks Gazette