Winnipeggers have always had a volatile love-hate relationship with water. The community needs to make a major investment in flood protection but faces the normal constraints of working with limited resources. If the city is open-minded about spending smarter it would forego constructing a traditional water treatment plant in favour of new, more cost efficient treatment technology. The savings would free up major capital resources to pay for the city’s share of the floodway upgrade.
The City is fortunate to have a pristine water source in the Canadian Shield. In the early 90s worries about too much demand and too little supply led city council to start raising water rates to accumulate funds for a new water-treatment plant. The new supply was to come from near Pinawa, a relatively dirty source compared to Shoal Lake. As water prices rose, demand fell off to the point that the new supply was not needed. Homeowners stopped watering their lawns and discovered low-demand toilets, showerheads, washing machines and dishwashers. Businesses responded to the price signals as well and began to economize on water consumption.
While the main reason for collecting funds for a new water plant was gone, the issue of water quality emerged in the wake of high profile water treatment failures in Walkerton and other cities.
Walkerton showed how operator incompetence, missing oversight, and the deadly e-coli 0157 bacteria strain turned into a lethal cocktail of errors, sickness, and death. Kelowna demonstrated that overflowing outhouses used by campers should not be located in a City’s pristine watershed. North Battleford taught us that operator incompetence and poor instrumentation can lead to plant failure and deliver water infected with the cryptosporidium parasite to customers.
These incidents helped to sell Council on the idea that we need a new treatment plant to deal with water-borne parasites and bacteria that may threaten our present sources. Last year Council approved a water treatment plant (WTP) that is estimated to cost 24.5 million a year to operate, or about a billion dollars over 20 years.
The City now has less expensive options. For example, ozonation, which mixes gaseous ozone together with incoming water, kills the lethal e-coli strain and cryptosporidium and giardia. Testing this would establish whether the method can avoid the expensive treatments of coagulation, settlement, and filtration that makes up the major cost of a WTP. Milwaukee added ozonation to its water treatment plant after a cryptosporidium outbreak killed 104 people and made 40,000 ill. It has been proposed, as well, for two of Vancouver’s three water supplies.
An even less expensive process that uses ultraviolet light to disinfect water was proposed at the public hearings on the WTP. Two years ago this technology was still emerging from the labs for municipal water purification. Today North Battleford uses it precisely because it kills cryptosporidium and giardia. The world’s largest UV disinfection unit is now being installed in Edmonton.
Fortunately, there still is an opportunity to go with the most cost effective water treatment technology in Winnipeg. The City chose to investigate UV disinfection, while saving up capital for a WTP. This was a wise compromise because it kept the door open to less expensive solutions.
By going with the latest treatment technology a large amount of the community’s capital can be redeployed towards another strategic investment – expanding the Winnipeg Floodway. Flood protection, another aspect of water management, is also a responsibility of the Water and Waste Department. The UV technology can be deployed for $1 million annually thereby freeing up almost $24 million per year. This large sum of money would help pay for floodway expansion with substantially upgraded water control that permanently eliminates periodic flooding of the Forks walkway.
A traditional water treatment plant that uses full filtration could still be built 15 to 20 years in the future, if citizens wish. The full WTP only improves the taste of water during the summer months, a dubious benefit for those 50% of households that already use water filters or bottled water.
There is a clear need to protect the city against the next big Red River flood. The smartest policy choice therefore is the immediate health benefit of UV disinfection and reduced flood risk. Winnipeggers should impress on their elected representatives that flood control is a higher priority than minor improvements in the taste and odour of water over the next 20 years.
The almost $25 million per year projected for the treatment plant can be spent deepening the Floodway. That would represent almost $250 million after 10 years’ digging. If the provincial and federal governments contributed equal amounts, then we would have the $750 million needed to complete the project.
That is about as painless as it can get for Winnipeg’s overtaxed citizens.