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Sunday, 6 March 2011

Meanwhile back at the outhouse...

Municipal water and wastewater infrastructure is not exactly the topic of general dinner conversation in many homes in NL, rural or otherwise. But it should be. As if the drinking water issue discussed here weren't enough there's the other side of the issue: sewer.

To understand the issue we have to start at the beginning. Currently in NL when municipalities want to install or upgrade infrastructure the main source of funding works on a cost shared basis as described in this press release in 2008. So the vast majority of rural municipalities qualify for a 90/10 arrangement whereby they only have to contribute 10% of the total project cost. While that is an exceptional deal it is still a considerable challenge when infrastructure projects generally run into the multi-million dollar range, making even that 10% a difficult task. Not too long ago the situation was much more challenging with communities required to invest 50% of a projects cost. This is part of the reason why we have a serious issue with crumbling infrastructure in NL. Basically it costs so much and rural communities can't generate their portion of the investment.

Consider for a moment how many rural communities really need, or needed water and sewer infrastructure? Of course people wanted it because it was the newest and most modern thing to prove we were shedding our "poor" outport past. The common consensus in municipal circles is that the vast majority of towns are not charging enough in taxes to pay for both the initial loans for construction and the ongoing maintenance of aging systems. So the infrastructure is crumbling and the initial loans are still outstanding in some cases.

Now for the really bad news.

Specifically when it comes to sewer systems in rural NL we keep it pretty simple. We collect sewage, use pipes and lift stations to pump it to the coastline where we dump it into the ocean, generally untreated. Of course as simple as that system is, many rural systems are still failing on a regular basis due to a general lack of maintenance. While there is some debate as to how damaging this effluent is to the ocean environment, Environment Canada has decided that any untreated effluent dumped into the ocean is too much(if only they felt the same way about foreign overfishing) and new effluent regulations will be phased in over the coming years across the country. So take our inadequate and crumbling infrastructure and add the cost of sewer treatment into the mix and rural NL is going to take a hit.

Estimates for NL alone have been as high as $2.5 billion to upgrade to secondary treatment for over 660 sewer outfalls in NL. The Feds have indicated that this will happen and the Province have indicated that they will need Federal dollars to make it happen, and that it will take decades to complete. The specifics have not yet been released but no matter what the final agreement, consider how willing are those two levels of government going to be, to invest in small rural communities where populations are shrinking and they have not real source of local funding? Keep in mind that even for small communities the cost for sewer treatment will likely be in the millions of dollars range. For the City of St. John's alone the project ran $60 million over budget as noted in this CBC story.

Whatever the solution, there will need to be significant investment from all partners, but it must be in new and innovative ways that will allow our smaller communities to maintain a certain standard of living without continually digging themselves deeper and deeper in debt. And we had better start thinking about those solutions soon, because... things are piling up.

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