Manitoulin citizen tackles high cost of water treatment

ASSIGINACK—When Phil Blake was asked to join the latest composition of the Sunsite Water Committee this spring, he dove head first into the job, tackling a sea of contracts and touring the municipality’s two water treatment plants in order to get to the bottom of the plague of high water rates water users in this municipality, and others like it, face.

Mr. Blake, a Sunsite Estates resident, made one thing clear, though; he was doing this on behalf of all of Assiginack, and not just Sunsite. Mr. Blake himself, the owner of two lots at Sunsite, pays $1,700 a year for each lot in water costs.

The new committee, comprised of Don Gibson, Mathieu Pagé and himself met with former committee head Alison Greenhill for a debriefing, including the meeting with Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha and the letter writing campaign to Queen’s Park, before getting to work.

“I decided to take a different approach,” Mr. Blake told The Expositor. “To look not at what it is, but what it can be.” And that he did, spending three weeks and 120 hours on the project.

[pullquote]“I decided to take a different approach,” Mr. Blake told The Expositor. “To look not at what it is, but what it can be.” And that he did, spending three weeks and 120 hours on the project.[/pullquote]

Mr. Blake pored over the figures from the Assiginack municipal office from the past couple of years, looking to see how the rates were calculated and what it was that affected them. The number one culprits, he discovered, were hydro and call-ins from the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), which oversees the running of both plants.

“Assiginack has paid $100,000 in call-ins (to OCWA) since 2010,” Mr. Blake said.

After touring the two plants, Mr. Blake said he and the committee noticed some inefficiencies such as lighting and heating in the plants when this wasn’t necessary. “It was 75° in there in April,” he explained. “We then took these to Alton (Hobbs, Assiginack clerk-treasurer).” These issues have since been remedied by OCWA.

Mr. Blake than retained a copy of OCWA’s contract with the municipality, which he went through “with a fine tooth comb,” comparing it to other municipalities of a comparable size he could find online. He found that Assiginack was paying far more.

The committee later set up a meeting with OCWA representatives to discuss the findings, with one technician noting what he termed ‘dirty hydro’ coming into one of the Assiginack plants. A letter to Assiginack council from Denis Fauvelle of OCWA addressed these concerns, noting that all voltages are “well within” operable parameters.

“I can attest that we have had more than the usual number of outages last year, mostly relating to our transmission line which feeds the transformer station, and also some minor issues with our transformer station’s equipment,” Mr. Fauvelle continued.

Reeve Brad Ham noted during the June 20 council meeting that every time the power goes out (which it has on numerous occasions of late) a call-out happens which OCWA technicians must respond to. Staff has asked its engineer whether a regulator can be placed on the plants so that as power enters the building, its voltage is maintained.

“That’s where all the money is draining out,” Councillor Paul Moffat said.

“It’s not hydro that has to change, but the standard of hydro they deliver,” Reeve Ham agreed.

[pullquote]“It’s not hydro that has to change, but the standard of hydro they deliver,” Reeve Ham agreed.[/pullquote]

Mr. Blake told The Expositor he believed that municipal staff is doing everything they can to keep an eye on the running of the plants, but are facing limited resources. They therefore passed a motion to enable Mr. Blake to contact other Island municipalities that also utilize OCWA to compare contracts on its behalf.

“There are things that just don’t seem right, but I have to pursue it,” he said.

One change that could be made is the way in which the water is held at the plants. In speaking with Northeast Town CAO David Williamson, Mr. Blake learned that one OCWA employee took it upon himself to find efficiencies at both the Sheguiandah and Little Current plants. By lowering the volume of water held at the plants, the pumps don’t cycle as frequently and hydro costs go down. Little Current saw a savings of $20,000 a year and Sheguiandah $11,000, or half its hydro costs, a year. The Northeast Town publicly thanked the employee, Geoff Tuerk, at a January meeting for his dedication to the municipality.

“I asked OCWA why they didn’t pass that information on to Assiginack and got no answer,” he said. “I don’t think they’re being as diligent as they could be.” Mr. Blake did, however, also note the dedication of the OCWA’s employees throughout his journey into water rates.

“Changing contractors is not the answer,” he continued, “efficiency is. Will we see a reduction in cost? Likely not. Will wee see a savings to the municipality? Probably. It’s then up to council how they pass on those savings.”

“If it will do any good, time will tell, but I hope it will,” Mr. Blake said. “Maybe we’ll have to come up with some best practices of our own.”