The cost of clean water - Macleans.ca

The cost of clean water

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The Harper government announced yesterday that it will invest $330.8 million over two years “to sustain progress made to build and renovate water and wastewater infrastructure on reserve and to support the development of a long-term strategy to improve water quality in First Nation communities.” The funding commitment is about nine and a half months old, having first been made in the budget. At that time the Assembly of First Nations deemed it insufficient.

The 2012 budget commitment of $330 million over two years represents a continuation of the federal program. The two-year investment falls short of the estimated $4.7 billion in funding required as identified by the 2011 National Engineering Assessment. First Nations must continue to engage with the Government of Canada to develop a plan to implement the recommendations of the 2011 study and ensure a clear plan of investment.

The National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems was released in July 2011. The total cost for new servicing was projected to be $4.7 billion over ten years, but that projection comes with some caveats.

The contractor also projected the cost, over 10 years, of ensuring that water and wastewater systems for First Nations are able to grow with First Nation communities. Including the aforementioned $1.2 billion to meet the department’s current protocols, the contractor’s projections for the cost of new servicing is $4.7 billion.

Of this, the contractor also estimated future servicing costs in excess of $60,000 per home for 55 per cent of the communities.

As this cost per home is high, the contractor also recognized that, at a certain point, the cost of providing a typical servicing solution may begin to exceed the benefits of that solution.

While increasing funding for capital projects may seem like the only solution, it is important to recognize that the report states that only 30 per cent of the risk identified in high risk systems was due to design risk and infrastructure.

The costs outlined in the National Assessment are estimates which were provided to support planning to meet both short-term and long-term water and wastewater needs of First Nation communities. However, the estimates will not replace the more detailed feasibility studies needed to assess and price specific projects.

As the National Assessment report notes, the 10-year growth estimates in the National Assessment are based on a series of assumptions. For example, the assessment recommends full piped systems for many communities where such a system may not be the most cost-effective or sustainable option that also meets the health and safety requirements. Another example is future growth requirements which are based on a projected housing growth of 4,400 houses per year. This is significantly higher than the average net growth of 1,700 houses per year over the past five years.

The Department will work closely with First Nations to ensure that new projects identify the most cost-effective ways to appropriately meet a community’s health and safety needs. In many cases this may mean supporting First Nations in developing smaller systems, such as wells and cisterns.

Here is the AFN’s response to the national assessment. The CBC looked closer at the issue of water on reserves in November 2011.

I asked John Duncan’s office yesterday if the Harper government planned to increase funding to match the $4.7 billion projection. Here is the response.

The data and recommendations from the National Assessment informed funding decisions for the 2012-2013 fiscal year and will continue to inform development of long-term plans to support First Nations in delivering safe drinking water and effective treatment of wastewater in First Nation communities.

The costs outlined in the National Assessment are estimates which were provided to support planning to meet both short term and long term water and wastewater needs of First Nations communities. However, the estimates will not replace the more detailed feasibility studies needed to assess and price specific projects.

Today’s announcement detailing our government’s plan for new investments in First Nation water and wastewater systems on reserve, is part of a comprehensive long-term plan to improve on-reserve water and wastewater founded on three pillars: enhanced capacity building and operation training; enforceable standards and protocols; and infrastructure investments.

Our government is taking action to ensure First Nation communities have the same access to safe, clean drinking water as all Canadians. We recognize that more needs to be done to reduce risk levels and deliver results for water and wastewater systems on-reserve.

Between 2006 and 2014, the Government of Canada will have invested approximately $3 billion to support First Nation communities in managing their water and wastewater infrastructure and in related public-health activities.