WaterTAP recently partnered in April with the Ontario Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (OCSI) and the Municipal Finance Officers’ Association of Ontario (MFOA) to host a workshop about water infrastructure affordability – an important concern for many small communities in Ontario.
Held in Eganville, the workshop was facilitated by WaterTAP’s Lesley Herstein, and OCSI’s Darla Campbell. Jennifer Murphy, Mayor of the Township of Bonnechere Valley and Warden of the County of Renfrew, opened the event. Throughout the day, short presentations from Campbell; Dan Cowin, Executive Director, MFOA; Mike Dwyer, CAO, Township of Rideau Lakes, and Andrew Polley, Environmental Project Manager, Township of Bonnechere Valley, alternated with small workshop breakout group sessions.
The workshop focused on investigating and addressing the unique challenges that small municipalities experience in providing water and wastewater services. As such, much of the first part of the workshop was spent relaying the specific concerns affecting each representative’s home municipality.
The common threads that emerged from the discussions were telling. Many smaller communities are vulnerable to provincial policy. They are unable to budget payments or figure out how to generate more income to make up the difference. At times, treatment facilities are running at a higher plant capacity than necessary. And finally, municipalities lack predictable funding to plan for future replacement and/or expansion.
One conclusion was that larger-scale urban models of servicing water do not always provide a financial or environmental “fit” for smaller, more dispersed communities.
Furthermore, current policies, regulations, programs, and routines tend to make it difficult for small municipalities to choose alternatives to traditional solutions. The result is that municipalities either have or are influenced to build water infrastructure that they and their constituents cannot afford in the long term.
From this discussion, and thinking about the decades to come, there is the distinct concern that small Ontario communities cannot meet these financial and regulatory conditions.
This workshop brought together a group that could identify with each other’s water infrastructure affordability challenges. Throughout the day, participants collectively strategized and agreed on a number of items that would improve the likelihood of their municipality’s success:
- Ensure more flexibility in contract negotiation with vendors
- Look for opportunities to attract development in downtown areas, in order to better use existing infrastructure
- Update residential water fees to reflect actual infrastructure costs
- Work with the province to develop context-appropriate regulations that are mindful of small communities
- Share water infrastructure and associated goods and services across multiple municipalities in order to reduce and share financial overhead
- Develop a community of practice to share successful solutions to common small community issues
- Collaborate with the regulator to develop a better support system for small community inquiries.
In terms of next steps to fulfill these desirable outcomes, the participants are planning to approach provincial representatives as a group on the topic of ensuring affordability for Ontario’s small communities. WaterTAP pledged support for this initiative and will follow up with workshop attendees in the coming weeks.