The surprising cost of water stings - Metro US

The surprising cost of water stings

Enthusiasm is understandably muted for another proposed increase in water and sewer rates, but we’ve got some big, overdue bills to pay.

The water rates went up nine per cent last year and the year before, and this year, the planning and environment committee is recommending a 10 per cent jump, in part to cover $735,520 the city transferred onto the water budget in order to hold the tax rate increase to 3.77 per cent.

Some will correctly point out that this transfer was a shell game to keep the tax rate artificially low. It doesn’t make much difference to residents whether they’re paying the Department of Roundabouts instead of the Department of Swings.

The money will go to infrastructure repair and replacement, as well as measures to reduce basement flooding in the west end and protect the Ottawa River. It’s good news this money is being committed to these objectives, rather than sloshed around in general revenues, or subjected to next year’s political whims.

A short-sighted political drive for lower taxes, after all, has contributed to serious infrastructure neglect in Ottawa and other cities.

It is estimated Ottawa’s aging roads, pipes and bridges need as much as $1 billion in overdue repairs and upgrades. These are long-neglected, long-deferred costs, and they’re coming back to bite us on the civic posterior.

“For a long time, we kept everything flat,” planning and environment chairman Peter Hume said of the water rates. “We absorbed those increases, we used our reserve fund, we didn’t fund our infrastructure and now we’ve got problems, mostly on the capital side.”

The results? By 2005, our leaky pipes were wasting 63 million litres a day. Thanks to repairs and replacements since, the city says they’ve cut that gusher in half.

Our combined storm drain and sewage system has been plagued with malfunctions, resulting in spills of waste into the Ottawa River. Between 1998 — when monitoring equipment was installed — and 2008, the city had at least 10 major spills.

Last week the province laid more charges against us for alleged violations at the Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant and the Richmond Pumping Station.

The cost of not having our system up to scratch is only likely to increase when the federal Environment Ministry publishes new municipal wastewater regulations next month. The bill will sting, but the time to get on the job was yesterday.

– Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa; ottawaletters@metronews.ca.

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