Public asked to provide input on water meter proposal info package

GORE BAY—Gore Bay water users will be provided with a water meter information package this week after council agreed on information to be included in the proposal at a meeting last week.

“This is based on our last committee meeting of the whole, the next steps to get input from the public on the proposed water meters project,” stated Gore Bay Mayor Ron Lane. “We had agreed we should send information to every household-water user to get further input.”

Although the previous public meeting had been well attended, Mr. Lane pointed out that a great majority of residents who would be affected with the water meters being installed did not attend. “At the time we had no hard data to work with as to what water could cost if water meters were installed. This is the draft that was put together and we want council to approve it or add on to it before it is sent out. And we want to send it out fairly quickly because we have to make a decision as to whether we are going to proceed at our December meeting or hold a referendum on this issue.”

“If we are able to get this information package out in short order, the public will have the information and can provide feedback,” said Mr. Lane. “We said at the public meeting we would provide more information and this is our attempt at that.” He pointed out that a referendum can’t take place without an election being held.

Going to a referendum “is a long process,” confirmed town clerk Annette Clarke.

When members of the public receive the water meter proposal, “if there is something they don’t agree with or someone has a better system for monitoring or the costs involved, we would like their input,” said Mr. Lane.

Ms. Clarke explained that in putting together the question and answer format for water meters, “I really struggled with it. There is no way to know exactly how much water is being used, especially if it is a commercial-business.”

“The only way this can be done is by taking the national average of how much water a person uses in a year,” said Mr. Lane. “The estimate on how much it will cost will be questioned, obviously, but the figures provided in the proposal are the best we could come up with at this point and are estimates only.”

It was noted by Ms. Clarke that for those who use less water, their rates would decrease or increase for those who use more water.

“This covers every meter,” said Mr. Lane, “ residential, commercial and institutional. For instance the estimate for one person is $275 (per year) so for the nursing home with 50 plus beds, they use the most water. That’s why it is so difficult to form a rate structure until we see the actual consumption rates.”

Ms. Clarke said most residences in town have one or two occupants so most of the water user rates will fall under that category.

“People just want an example, and here is one, they have asked us to give them an idea of the cost, so we are providing an estimate without the hard data on exactly how much water they use,” said Mr. Lane.

“I commend you for the work you (mayor and clerk) have done on this,” said Councillor Jack Clark. “I will be back with questions and answers, but it should be stated in the information package that these are the best calculations that can be provided at this time, until we see the actual water usage rates (with meters).”

Councillor Wes Bentley stated, “the wild card is the big users—we have no absolute idea how much water they are using.” He suggested the town could look at the option of “a hybrid system, with water meters put on the 20 biggest users in town. If the majority of the households have one-two residents, maybe we are spending a lot of money to resolve concerns with 20 big water users in town,” he said.

Councillor Lou Addison said it is interesting that when Central Manitoulin put in water meters it was only for commercial business outlets, not residential.

Council passed a motion stating in part, “whereas a draft water meter proposal information package has been drafted by the mayor and CAO/clerk outlining details pertaining to water meters including rate examples; and staff is unable to determine accurate rates without having water meter data to work with, therefore, that portion of the information package is an example only based upon the current water budget and an estimate of water usage,” and they agreed to send out the packages.

In the water meter information proposal-question and answer guide, it is asked why is the town considering water meters.

It is explained: “It is a fairer way to recover the cost of operating the water system. You pay for what you use and you have control over that. You do not pay for excessive use by other people; to promote water conservation and result in cost savings for the operation of the water and waste systems i.e. chemicals, hydro, wages, equipment; to obtain accurate records of water consumption to meet government requirements; may become a requirement in the future in order to obtain government grants for water system projects. The Ministry of the Environment currently encourages metering; to assist with the location of leaks in the system.

Will water meters really result in water conservation? It is answered, “water meters make people aware of their water use and as such there is less tendency to waste or over use it; meters also help identify water leaks both inside and outside the premises; statistics show that conservation rates are between 10-30 percent with meters; there are many ways to conserve water without changing your life style including the use of water saving devices like low flow shower heads and toilets and front loading washing machines or even watering your lawn or garden at the right time of day to avoid evaporation or run off due to over watering.”

How is the current water rate calculated? “Water rates are divided into three categories (residential, commercial and institutional) within the commercial and institutional categories there are three ranges—low, medium and high use; a flat rate has been assigned to each of these categories. The current residential flat rate is $377.36 per year which is the same rate used for low use commercial and institutional; these rates (subject only to annual percentage increases from time to time), have been in place for many years and are not based on any sort of actual water usage data. The fairness of these rates has been questioned in the past.”

How will water rates be calculated with water meters? “Until water usage with meters can be monitored for a period of time to determine average consumption it is very difficult to estimate what the cost will be to individual users. In order to provide users some idea of what water rates might be following the introduction of water meters, the following examples are being provided. It must be emphasized that these are estimates only and are being provided in response to questions received by council. It should also be noted that as the cost associated with producing treated water increase over time that water rates whether metered or not will also need to increase periodically.”

It is also pointed out in the package, “without metering data we are unable to calculate how much water is actually being used by residents, commercial and j industrial users. We know that 280,792 cubic meters is pumped from the water treatment plant each year. If we allow a 10 percent adjustment for ‘lost water’ it would bring the annual consumption to 252,713 cubic metres. We also know that the average water consumption for Canadians is 122 cubic metres per year (Environment Canada Fact sheet on water use and consumption). We also know that the majority of the residences in Gore Bay have two people or less. We also know what our annual cost is to operate the water system. Based on this data the following examples represent an estimate only of the water costs for a residential user after meters are installed: The current water charge (2012) for a residential user is $377.76.

“Example No. 1, based on a base or flat rate of $275 plus 70 cents per cubic meter used (the base rate allows for 180 cubic meters of use before any extra charges are applied). For one person the rate would be $275, a savings of $102.36; for two persons $319.80, a savings of $57.56; three persons: $405.20, an additional cost of $27.84; four persons, $490.60, an additional cost of $113.24; five persons, $576, an additional cost of $198.64; and six persons, $661.40, an additional cost of $284.04.”

Example No. 2 is based on 95 cents per cubic meter for every cubic metre used. (This is based on the national consumption average of 122 cubic metres per person per year.) One person would cost $115.90, a savings of $261.46; two persons, $231.80, a savings of $145.56; three persons, $347.70, a savings of $29.66; four persons, $463.60, an additional cost of $86.24; five persons, $579.50, an additional cost of $202.14; six persons, $695.40, an additional cost of $318.04.”

“What if consumption falls to the extent that water rates have to be increased?” it is asked in the package. “This will depend on the extent that users actually adopt water conservation practices and will be difficult to predict until meters have been in place for a couple of years. Once meters are installed consumption will be monitored for the first year before a rate structure is established, it is possible an initial rate structure would include a base rate beyond which a per cubic meter of use charge would apply. This would allow for a guaranteed amount of revenue for the operation of the water system and require above average users to pay for the extra water that they use. Once meters have been in place for a few years and a pattern of consumption can be more accurately determined, the rate structure can be adjusted so revenues can be better projected to match the cost of water production.”

The question is asked, “How will the meter installation cost be paid for and will meters increase the cost to operate the water system?”

“The project includes the supply and installation of the meter on your premises. The meters will belong to the town and any future maintenance or replacement will be the town’s responsibility. Almost 75 percent of the project cost is paid for by a government grant under the Ontario Small Waterworks Assistance Program. This program targets projects that conserve water and improve water system efficiencies. The remaining 25 percent, or $221 per user, will be paid from the town water reserve fund. This will be recovered over a four year period by a separate levy on individual water bills. Other than a small increase in the administration cost to read the meters and to send out water bills on a quarterly basis instead of twice each year, the water meter project will not result in any increase in the cost to operate the water system.”

Can the government grant be used for any other purpose? The town replied, “the grant was approved specifically for this project. We have contacted the ministry to see if it would be possible to use the grant for another related purpose i.e. water line repair or perhaps partial water metering. The ministry has advised that we would have to submit a new proposal and they would review it to see if it is eligible under this program. There is no guarantee a new proposal would be approved.”

How much water is currently produced/consumed in Gore Bay? “Currently, approximately 280,792 cubic metres (280,792,000 litres or 62 million gallons) is being produced by our water system each year. Without water meters there is no way to determine how much of our water production goes to residential, business or institutional use or how much represents leakage in the system.”

Why do we need to conserve water when Gore Bay is a small community and therefore the water we consume is insignificant given the fact we are located on one of the largest Great Lakes? The town replies, “Environment Canada in its publication called “Wise Water Use” states, “that the importance of protecting our water resource cannot be overstated. The perception that Canada is blessed with an abundance of fresh water has led to misuse and abuse of the resource. The solution is straight forward water conservation. Doing the same with less. Using water more efficiently or reducing use will reduce pollution, lower water costs and extend the life of existing supply and water treatment plants. The drastic fall in water levels in Lake Huron and other lakes is already a major public concern. There are many reasons for this but clearly water use by the vast populations around those lakes is a contributing factor.”

The information package explains, “The meter will be installed by a certified technician inside your premises on the main water intake line next to the shutoff valve. If there is a problem with the existing plumbing or location of the line the technician will advise the town, and the town and the owner will work to resolve the problem. Appointments for installation will be scheduled by the contractor with the owner at the owners convenience. Meters will be read remotely without any entry to the premises.

What about apartment buildings? “One meter per building will be installed unless units already have their own water intake line and shutoff. In this way consumption is totaled for the complex and one bill will be issued to the owner. It will be the owner’s responsibility to recover his water cost just like other utilities that are not separately metered.”

“Is water metering new?” the question was posed. The town replied, “No. On Manitoulin water metring is currently in place in NEMI for all users and in Central Manitoulin for commercial users. Canada-wide at least 75 percent of residential water users are metered. The City of London, for example, has been fully metered since 1925.”

Why doesn’t the town fix the water system problems first before installing meters? “Although the water treatment plant is quite new, the water line system that it feeds into is not. Over the years various size lines have been used and in some cases the town does not know the exact location of the lines. The town recently has applied for a grant to conduct an engineering study of its water and waste systems to help determine what the issues are and what it will take to fix them. This will include the location of all town-owned water lines. The replacement and/or relocation of water lines is a major project which also impacts the streets and can only be done with the assistance of large government grants. The town on its own cannot afford to do this and it cannot be predicted if or when grants for this purpose will be available. An example of this would be the recent replacement of the water line and the street repairs on Gore Street. This project cost over one million dollars.”

Some houses are required to run water in the winter so their water supply won’t freeze. How will meters accommodate that? “The town issues an advisory every fall to certain property owners to run water. Some of these issues relate to existing water lines or plumbing problems on private property and some relate to potential freezing issues in town waterlines. Since meters will produce a daily record of water use it will be possible to provide a rebate or discount to those users who must run water as a result of an issue with the town line. Issues on private land are the responsibility of the owner, however, the town will work with these owners to try and resolve these issues. This issue, as it relates to town owned lines, is being investigated by the town and will be part of the proposed engineering study referred to above.

What are the next steps for the water meter proposal? Council can: 1. Approve the proposal; 2. Reject the current proposal, but reapply for a grant for a different conservation related water project; and 3. Hold a vote (referendum) of the residents of Gore Bay to see if they are in favour of the project. There are many rules relating to referendums and this option may not be feasible. It was pointed out, “if the project is approved a public education program will take place to explain the process, i.e. tender and award of contract, the installation process etc. And before any water billing changes take effect, council will hold another public meeting to discuss billing options and receive public input in that regard.”

Tom Sasvari