We were picking up a few things across the border and had to stop in at Canada Customs to pay some duty. I struck up a conversation with one of the people behind the desk and we chatted about local politics. And then he mentioned the rising cost of water utility bills in St. Stephen.
To be honest I hadn’t thought about water costs, though I’ve written about water treatment and high levels of chlorine as well as the possibility of arsenic filtering into the water through the rocks upstream.
It triggered another memory, a discussion with a biologist and environmentalist who told me that an important natural gravel-bed filter had been disturbed by workers with heavy equipment at the source of the Dennis Stream water supply. That must have been a decade ago. Since then, he said, there have been problems with the quality and amount of water flow available to the town. I don’t know if that’s true, but it would warrant further investigation. Especially since the small town of St. Stephen alone uses over 1.3 million liters of water a day, consuming at the national rate.
There has also been increasing pressure on the St. Stephen water system over the years to supply both growing residential and industrial demands. While I couldn’t find any numbers on how much water it takes to produce a ton of particleboard (i.e. Flakeboard), I did find out that it takes a liter of water to make one small chocolate bar (i.e. Ganong). It would be fair to say that the Ganong factory has rather large water requirements given their successful production expansion during David Ganong’s tenure at the helm.
So if water costs are rising, is it due to the scarcity, the cost of the water treatment-delivery system or something else?
Environmental activist Maude Barlow tells us that water is the new blue gold. What concerns Barlow is the rapidly diminishing supply of clean fresh water, growing demand and the increasing pressure from corporations to take control of local water supplies.
She poses good questions: Who owns water? Should anyone? Should it be privatized? What rights do transnational corporations have to buy water systems? Should it be traded as a commodity in the open market? What laws do we need to protect water? What is the role of government? How do those in water-rich countries share with those in water-poor countries? Who is the custodian for nature's lifeblood? How do ordinary citizens become involved in this process?
With those questions Barlow starkly points out the massive grey areas surrounding the control of fresh water. In Canada this is of particular concern with the NAFTA (free trade agreement) tearing down barriers to national control of strategic resources.
But is that what is affecting us locally? Is that what’s driving up our annual household water costs to the level of our annual property taxes?
One of the reasons is the coastal effect. Surrounded by saltwater and tides, fresh water can’t be taken directly from the tidal rivers such as the St. Croix and St. John, which in addition to being flooded by saltwater twice a day, have been polluted by industry for decades. Our water comes from lakes, streams or groundwater aquifers, all of which require protection and maintenance, which comes at a cost.
These fragile sources of water are also more vulnerable. Groundwater supplies can’t be seen and, as has been proven the world over, are always in danger of being over-exploited. Lakes and streams are susceptible to problems from runoff and environmental pollution from sources as diverse as agriculture to recreation. And even natural environmental pollution such as algae and giardia pose ongoing challenges to our freshwater supply.
But these problems, all of them, have been around for years, and our local governments have coped very successfully with these challenges. So why would water rates be rising now, if the problems have been handled economically in the past?
Two factors come to mind. The first is the cost of upgrading aging water supply infrastructure, which is very expensive. Most of our systems in North America were first put in the ground over a century ago, and some of that legacy system is falling apart and in urgent need of replacement. That costs money.
The second factor is political. As governments centralize, more federal and provincial funds are spent on centralized administrations, which means there’s less money being transferred, proportionally, to smaller communities. Even federal transfer payments to the provinces are at risk of being cut. And who gets to chose between investing in local infrastructure and, say, building new federal prisons? So where are towns going to make up the shortfalls?
Raising water rates is an easy, nearly invisible fix. While raising property taxes raises a hue and cry at election time (which is rapidly upon us), water rates get a relatively free pass. If this is the case, it affects two groups: those who can’t afford the higher rates, and those who need cheap water to keep their industries running and workers employed.
If rising rates are indeed a concern, perhaps it’s time ask our politicians to open the tap the issue.