Vancouver’s current water woes could have been avoided had the region stuck to its plan a few years ago to have private contractors build and operate a filtration system, some private water companies say.
Instead, construction was delayed because area politicians yielded to public pressure and scrapped plans for a public-private partnership, known as a P3 – a model that some say holds the key to solving Canada’s growing infrastructure problems.
“Had they stuck to their original timetable, the plant would have been up and running today,” said Stan Spencer, water business director with Earth Tech Canada, based in Markham, Ont.
“There would not have been a problem in Vancouver today. They would have perfectly clean water.”
A week ago, health authorities in the Vancouver region implemented a boil-water advisory after drinking water from rain-churned reservoirs turned a muddy brown as turbidity levels shot through the roof.
As of Wednesday, about 900,000 people were still being forced to drink bottled water or boil tap water.
Derek Corrigan, mayor of Burnaby, B.C., called it “absurd” that anyone would link the boil-water advisory to delays caused by scrapping the P3 project in 2001.
“The devotees of public-private partnerships are probably more adamant than many proselytizing groups I know of,” Corrigan said.
“The question of any delays that took place were simply a matter of us trying to avoid the three Ps that were proposed and return the control of our public water supply to the public.”
Corrigan was chairman of the water committee when, amid strenuous public opposition, the Greater Vancouver Regional District backed off its plan to have private interests build and operate a filtration system in 2001.
At one point, 500 people packed a meeting in Burnaby to express concerns that prices would rise, accountability would go down and water quality would be compromised with private-sector involvement.
The initial decision to build the plant was spurred in part by water-quality concerns that flowed across Canada in the aftermath of the E. coli tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., six years ago.
Ironically, a private company that once hoped to run Vancouver’s water plant has taken over the system in Walkerton, where seven people died and thousands more fell ill in May 2000 after torrential rains washed deadly bacteria into the town’s well-based water supply.
“They had discussions politically,” Mark Sanderson, a vice-president with Paris-based Veolia Water, said of the Vancouver region decision.
“We weren’t involved in those discussions (but) had they stuck to their schedule, we would have had that (filtration plant) built.”
A recent poll suggests nearly two-thirds of Canadians support P3s to help beef up the country’s ailing infrastructure.
On Monday, Trade and Infrastructure Minister Lawrence Cannon said Ottawa was looking at asking the private sector to help finance and maintain a new border crossing at the busy Canada-U.S. border in Windsor, Ont.
But P3 opponents, who fear the creeping influence of privatization, are especially vocal when it comes to water.
“Water being a precondition of all life is best served by by public entities,” said Susan Howatt, national water campaigner with the Council of Canadians, which opposed the Seymour P3.
The companies disagree.
They argue they would quickly go out of business if they didn’t deliver, and that performance clauses in their contracts ensure a high degree of accountability.
This week, a conference on public-private partnerships in Toronto heard about successful water systems that are not publicly run, such as in Moncton, N.B., Goderich, Ont., and Indianapolis.
“When you look at the failures that have happened around Canada, they are generally related to publicly operated systems,” Spencer said.