Feb 11

Fool me once …

The current spat going on between Rothesay and Saint John over water serves as a clear example of how cooperation and partnership can go wrong between neighbouring municipalities. The incident provides a lesson in how every municipality needs to ensure protections are in place to defend its own interests and citizens from the competing interests of neighbouring communities.

What happened?

In the early 1990s, Rothesay asked Saint John to extend its municipal water service out to Rothesay’s Kennebecasis Park and Hastings Cove, neighbourhoods near the boundary between Rothesay and Saint John. The significant infrastructure costs were to be born by Saint John ratepayers, but the service fees paid from Rothesay would — over an extended period — defray the cost of that infrastructure.

However, ongoing customer complaints regarding perceived water quality and pressure problems eventually led Rothesay to decide to provide K-Park and Hastings Cove with municipal water from its own water system. On February 8th, Rothesay switched the two neighbourhoods over to its own water supply, effectively dead-ending the large pipe that had been coming in from Saint John Water.

This created two serious problems for Saint John:

  • The small number of Saint John residents also served by that large pipe were suddenly at risk. Due to stagnation of water in the now dead-end line, the effectiveness of chlorination was reduced, which meant that water quality could no longer be guaranteed. See the notice sent to residents. (This issue was made worse by the failure of Rothesay to notify Saint John Water in advance that the change was taking place.)
  • The bulk of the infrastructure cost of the dead-end line has not yet been paid off through fees from Rothesay, as that amortization was to occur over many decades.
Is Saint John’s water bad?

Saint John drinking water is not great. But it’s no worse than the drinking water in many communities across the country, and it continues to meet the current safe drinking water standards.

Periodic boil-water orders have occurred not because contaminants have been detected or health problems reported, but because of the City’s defence-in-depth strategy of water protection (referred to in the industry as a ‘multi-barrier approach’). New measures, standards and technologies have been put in place to monitor water quality more aggressively in order to address potential risks before they become health risks. (For example, trends in source water temperature or turbidity — cloudiness — have triggered some past boil water orders, even though no increase in bacterial count was detected.)

In other words, the increasing number of boil water orders have occurred because Saint John Water is being more careful, not because the water is getting worse. The fact is, the quality of Saint John’s water has not changed significantly during the period in question. Public awareness, however, has increased — in part because of the greater vigilance of Saint John Water regarding potential threats and thus the greater number of advisories and boil water orders.

Saint John Water’s caution regarding water quality should be a comfort to Saint Johners. (See Public Health Inspector Phillip Webb’s op-ed from December 2009.) However, negative perceptions created by a lack of understanding among the public about drinking water management (and to a great extent by tabloid media coverage of the issue) have created a lot of community anxiety about water quality. This anxiety was felt by Rothesay residents on Saint John water as much as by Saint Johners themselves.

However, when it comes to contractual obligations in the agreement between Rothesay and Saint John, the issue of water quality — whether the risks are real or perceived — is moot. Saint John was obligated to provide Rothesay with the same water Saint John was providing to its own citizens. There were no thresholds, action levels or standards specified in that contract and violated by Saint John, and thus, Rothesay cannot use water quality as an excuse for walking away from its own obligations.

Did Rothesay do the right thing?

Rothesay’s city council must serve the interests of its own citizens, and it was right to invest its own tax dollars in its own infrastructure in order to put K-Park and Hastings Cove on Rothesay water.

However, that isn’t the end of the story. Rothesay needs to accept that the cost of switching water source includes not only the cost of its own pipe, but the cost of the infrastructure that it had asked Saint John to install back in the days when Rothesay didn’t want to spend its own money.

The cost of that infrastructure was to be defrayed over many decades through service charges, but to date very little of that cost has actually been paid off. The pipe originally sized to serve K-Park and Hastings Cove is now unusable in the long term, and Saint John will likely need to lay entirely new, appropriately sized lines to serve its residents on Rothesay Road. The cost of the original pipes should be born by Rothesay taxpayers, and not Saint John Water ratepayers. It isn’t right for Rothesay to think it can simply walk away from that expense.

And Rothesay wasn’t right to simply turn a valve and catastrophically degrade the water quality of Saint John residents without first coordinating with Saint John Water. The notification to Saint John Water came after K-Park and Hastings Cove had been isolated from the Saint John water line, leading to a scramble as Saint John assessed the impact and notified residents.

It’s hard to see Rothesay’s failure to consider the health of neighbouring residents as anything more than a screw you to Saint John and those living on Rothesay Road.

The merit of lawsuits

Many have suggested that Saint John abandon its lawsuit and (1) try to work with Rothesay to resolve the situation, and/or (2) simply lay new pipe to give its citizens on Rothesay Road potable water.

There’s definitely a ‘feel good’ sense to those suggestions, but unfortunately there’s no reason to think further attempts at collaboration with Rothesay would work (especially since such attempts have already failed miserably).

Rothesay doesn’t want to pay, plain and simple. If the alternative to a lawsuit is Saint John Water ratepayers being left with a whopping bill for the joy of having supplied Rothesay neighbourhoods with water for the last 14 years, then suing doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

There’s also no need for residents to have to wait for a legal resolution. Steps should be taken as soon as possible to restore potable water to those homes.

What needs to happen next

Lawsuit. Rothesay should do the right thing and pay Saint John Water back for whatever costs remain unpaid for the now dead-end water line. If Rothesay isn’t willing to do that, Saint John should pursue its lawsuit aggressively and make all relevant records available to the public so its citizens can gain a full understanding of this situation.

Water for Rothesay Road. If the idea of having Rothesay supply water to Saint John residents on Rothesay Road is practical, that option should be explored quickly, regardless of the lawsuit.

If that option isn’t immediately viable — in terms of engineering or politics — Saint John should prioritize new, appropriately sized lines to get potable water to those residents along Rothesay Road who now rely on municipal water service. Asking citizens to wait potentially years for a legal resolution with Rothesay is unacceptable and unnecessary. (In the meantime, see Saint John’s contingency plan in response to this incident.)

Lessons for Common Council

Trust is essential to any partnership, but blind trust leads to the types of problems we’ve seen here.

Saint John Common Council screwed up back in the 90s when they agreed to provide water service to Rothesay neighbourhoods. The cost of that screwup is inconvenience and depreciation of property values for citizens along Rothesay Road, the need to lay new lines to serve those citizens, and the costs and public relations nightmares of a lawsuit against Rothesay.

Common Council screwed up not by providing bad water (as many have suggested) but by trusting a neighbouring community to honour its contractual commitments (something Rothesay has proven unwilling to do). Common Council screwed up by acting in good faith and expecting the other party to do the same.

The fact is, municipalities act in the best interests of their own citizens, and not those of other communities. They will always do this. That’s good governance. And so, Rothesay town council was always going to put the interests of Rothesay citizens and taxpayers over those of other municipalities (if they even considered the welfare of other municipalities at all). To expect anything else was unrealistic.

Saint John Common Council of today needs to consider this fact when opportunities for partnership arise, and whenever regional interests are trumpetted over politicians’ obligations to their own electorates. Common Council must be diligent and think defensively when entering into any partnership.

And whenever neighbouring municipalities or regionalized organizations (such as the Board of Trade or Enterprise Saint John) start calling for regional cooperation and preaching the mantra that what’s good for Greater Saint John will also be good for Saint John itself, councillors need to remember that this isn’t always true. They must remember that their obligations are to their own citizens, and not those of Rothesay or other outlying communities.

Councillors also need to learn the lessons of this particular incident: Don’t expect our regional partners to be altruistic or even honourable, because history has proven that to be a naive and foolish assumption. Look for opportunities to work together to achieve mutual goals, but do so with your eyes wide open.

And for God’s sake, the next time Rothesay calls begging for a favour, please … just hang up the phone.


Feb 11

Watching our water

Saint John Airport has settled out of court with the City of Saint John after removing trees from City land and cutting into the protected Loch Lomond Watershed (one of two drinking water reservoirs for the City of Saint John). The offence took place in 2009, and the only reason I’m aware of it is because settlement documents showed up buried in the back of the supplement to the Saint John Common Council agenda packet from December 20, 2010 (link – large slow file, or excerpt 101220b excerpt SJ_Airport).

(Add another item to the list of stories the TJ chose not to report or simply missed. The City should also have made news of this incident more public, as water quality is front of mind for many Saint Johners.)

We’re all familiar now with the challenges of an aging water distribution system, but the issue of source water quality is something we need to think about too. This is also relevant to the discussions currently taking place throughout the province, and in this city, regarding wetlands protection and development.

The Airport/Watershed incident raises questions about what the City does – and what realistically it can do – to protect its source water. That’s especially important in areas where human activity and industrial lands crowd our reservoirs. To the west the Spruce Lake reservoir is relatively isolated from accidental damage – barring a major industrial or highway hazardous materials incident – but the Latimer Lake reservoir to the east is routinely vulnerable to the Airport (already proven to be a problem), a range of summer residences and recreational users on upstream waterways, and illegal backwoods dumping. (A watershed cleanup in November netted 23,000 kg of waste from the areas surrounding First Lake, Second Lake, Robertson Lake and Latimer Lake — see link.)

What rights does the City have to protect its water supplies, and what measures are available to enforce those rights? What role does the provincial Department of Environment play in these issues? What sanctions and protections are needed to prevent contamination of our water supplies, whether by the Airport, by other land owners adjacent to reservoirs, or by people who think it’s okay to dump refuse and contaminants beside the source of our drinking water?

And is the City even able to detect tampering? The Airport settlement refers to the incident happening ‘in or about 2009 and/or early 2010’. Not exactly precise. I’d be interested in knowing how long it took the City to notice the damage and how it became aware of the incident in the first place.

This was a near miss in that water quality was not immediately affected. But the risk of future problems has increased because of the damage to the watershed. The City – through this legal settlement – seems to have put the issue to bed, but hopefully not without a new awareness of the risks some of its ‘partners’ pose to the safety of Saint John’s drinking water. I also hope that the City is looking at ways to prevent this type of offence from being perpetrated again – whether by the Airport, other landowners or illegal dumpers.

For its part the Airport is paying the City $15,000 for ‘out of pocket expenses’ and making a $20,000 donation to environmental initiatives (the price I suppose of asking for forgiveness, not permission). That’s a real steal, especially since the Airport or its contractor walked off with ‘a significant amount of merchantable timber’. It doesn’t seem like much of an incentive to play it straight next time around.

Airport 1, City nil.