The County is surrounded by so much clean, fresh water. Lake Ontario reaches its deepest point a few kilometres off South Marysburgh, descending 244 metres to the lake bottom. This Great Lake contains 393 million cubic metres of fresh water, lapping up onto 800 kilometres of Prince Edward County shore.
So why is Prince Edward County’s water among the most expensive in North America? How did we manage to make this abundant free resource, unbelievably expensive.
The residents of Sante Fe, New Mexico carve out their existence on a dry, arid steppe. So desperate for fresh water is the city that it has constructed a pipeline to pump fresh water from the Rio Grande. Yet, Sante Fe’s water, among the most expensive on the continent, is cheaper than the water Picton or Wellington or any of the other six communities that are served by municipal water in this County.
So, we’re number one. By my reckoning, we own the most expensive system in Ontario. If there is a place with more expensive water in Ontario, I can’t find it. Brant County, Windsor and North Bay are often cited as expensive water systems. But these places don’t hold a candle to Prince Edward County.
According to the County’s economic consultant, we’ve been flirting with the number one designation for a while now. But come July 1, the County will surely be on top—the most expensive waterworks in Ontario.
We will be the community other councils hold up as a caution—a warning of danger. “At least we aren’t as expensive as Prince Edward County,” they will tell their ratepayers.
Beginning next month, it will cost municipal water and wastewater customers in Prince Edward County $68.64 each month just for the service. It does not matter if they ever turn on a tap or flush a toilet. Every cubic metre of water they use will cost $2.12. Wastewater will cost $2.84 per cubic metre (Your toilet and waste flow isn’t monitored; however, the assumption is that all the water brought in will eventually be let back out into the wastewater system. Therefore, Shire Hall considers wastewater consumption to be the same as water use.)
It is likely your water bill is nearing three times more than it was just 12 years ago. In June 2005, the charge for 20 cubic metres of water and wastewater services was $61. Next month the fixed charge will be $68.64 and the consumption cost will be $99.20 for the same 20 cubic metres of water, for a total of $167.84. That’s a 175 per cent increase in a little more than a decade.
And it will get worse. Much worse. Beginning in January, waterworks rates will rise by five per cent. Every year. Until 2035.
Next year, the average annual bill, calculated by the County’s consulting economists using just 124 cubic metres per year—far lower than the 200 plus cubic metres my family consumes each year—will cost County waterworks customers $1,519. By 2035, the annual cost for water and sewer services using 124 cubic metres per year will rise to $2,254.
So how did we get into this mess?
Likely the biggest determinant was the confluence of amalgamation and the Walkerton water crisis. When the County amalgamated into a single municipality in 1998, it brought six wildly different and unique water distribution services and two wastewater plants under one rather convoluted system.
Furthermore, Picton came to the marriage with their waterworks in shambles. The first order of business in a newly amalgamated County was the development of a new sewage plant that eventually came in massively overbudget— with the bulk of the cost overruns landing on the backs of all County waterworks users. One for all, and all that.
The tragic deaths in Walkerton resulting from tainted municipal water in 2000, led to vastly increased quality, monitoring and performance standards—the cost was mostly borne by municipalities like Prince Edward County.
With expenses mounting rapidly and a small, disjointed consumer base with which to fund renewal, Shire Hall elected in 2008 to offload some of this burden onto the then-thriving residential homebuilding sector. But that move combined with the advent of fresh new development charges succeeded only in suffocating the building sector in the County.
In its latest determination of rates, after many months of committee meetings, the County will consider rolling back these punitive connection fees in order to kickstart new homebuilding again. But to do so means putting more of the cost to ratepayers and in debt. It has few good options available.
In simplest of terms, the County has too few waterworks consumers relying on an poorly integrated, rapidly decaying and leaky system. We have not yet come to grips in this community, and I dare say around the council table, with the fact that we can’t afford the systems and infrastructure the province says we must provide.
So we plod along. We pay consultants to produce reams of spreadsheets, pretending that we can. But these spreadsheets are fundamentally changing our community—they are deciding who can afford to live here and who can’t. This, I am pretty sure, is the role of a sentient council—not of spreadsheets.