Ucluelet talks water at Town Hall Meeting

It may be safe to drink, but you won’t want to use a clear glass.

Ucluelet locals could face a referendum asking if they’re willing to see a $300 tax increase in order to stop seeing brown water coming through their faucets.  

Local concerns over the colour of Ucluelet’s drinking water have been pouring into the district office as have complaints about linens being spoiled during laundry cycles.

A Town Hall Meeting was held on Tuesday night where district officials attempted to make clear to the community what’s being done to address the murky waters.

Mayor Bill Irving said the district spends “close to $1 million every year,” upgrading its water system but efforts were fast-tracked when a delegation of Marine Drive residents brought jars of brown and black water to council’s chambers in January.

The putrid presentation prompted a thorough review of Ucluelet’s water system and Koers and Associates Engineering was brought in to put a second set of eyes on the issue.

During Tuesday’s meeting, locals were consistently assured their water’s discolouration is purely an aesthetic issue and every drop remains safe to drink.

Chris Downey of Koers and Associates laid out several, short-term and long-term, strategies he believes could remedy Ucluelet’s water woes.  

Ucluelet relies on two water sources: the Lost Shoe Creek Aquifer—a ground water system consisting of four 20-metre-deep wells near the West Coast junction—and Mercantile Creek.

Downey explained that since Mercantile Creek is a surface reservoir, it is prone to high turbidity levels and can only be used during periods of moderate to low rainfall.

 â€œMeasures were not installed to filter the source to allow for constant use year round,” he said.

He added Mercantile Creek has “very low concentration levels in iron and manganese.”

Ucluelet faces the opposite issue with its Lost Shoe Creek Aquifer as the year-round water source is underground and has minimal turbidity concerns but does contain iron and manganese, according to Downey.

“The source water has high concentrations of iron and manganese,” he said. “Especially when it comes to manganese.”

He said three of the aquifer’s four wells are within, but close to, the accepted aesthetic limits of manganese—the well above the limit is not presently online—and all four are within the aesthetic limits for iron.  

He added the water’s manganese levels can stain plumbing fixtures and laundry but does “not represent a risk to your health.”

Mercantile Creek currently only flows into one of Ucluelet’s two reservoirs and Downey suggested upgrading its infrastructure to allow its water to supply both.

“This would allow the Mercantile source to supply the entire district as a primary source of water with the Lost Shoe Creek Aquifer wells as a secondary source of water,” he said.

He suggested a pilot testing program be launched to confirm the level of filtration and treatment measures required for each water source and that Ucluelet update its Water Master Plan.

He also recommended a unidirectional flushing program to remove iron and manganese buildup from the district’s water pipes.

The two long-term strategies Downey put on the table were a new filtration system for Mercantile Creek, to limit turbidity and allow its water to be used year round, and a treatment process at Lost Shoe Creek to reduce manganese and iron levels.

After Downey laid out his recommendations, the district’s financial manager Jeanette O’Connor laid out their estimated price tags.

Starting with Downey’s short term recommendations, O’Connor said the unidirectional flushing strategy would cost the district about $25,000, the pilot testing would cost about $80,000 and the water master plan update would cost about $25,000.

She said providing Mercantile Creek with access to both Ucluelet’s reservoirs would cost about $120,000.

“All of these measures will be something that council will decide on whether they want to do and will be going into the budget process,” she said. “We do have the funds in our water reserve fund to be able to pay for those.”

The district does not, however, have the funds to cover Downey’s two long-term recommendations and, if council decides to pursue them, the district would need to hold a referendum to ask locals for permission to borrow money, according to O’Connor.  

She said the district can currently borrow money at a borrowing rate of 3.18 per cent for a 10 year loan but, considering a 20-year loan might be more manageable and interest rates will likely increase in the next decade, she mapped out the cost to taxpayers using a 5 per cent borrowing rate.

Mercantile Creek’s new filtration system would cost about $3.5 million and increase the average homeowner’s taxes by about $110 per year, according to O’Connor.

She said the new treatment system for Lost Shoe Creek would cost the district about $7 million, meaning an additional $200 per year tax increase to the average homeowner.  

Mayor Irving said Ucluelet would seek Provincial and Federal funding to ease the burden on local taxpayers if Downey’s proposed long term projects were pursued.

Irving also spoke to a potential regional water system on the West Coast.

“That is going to be part of the long term master plan,” he said. “Other communities on the Coast have changed their thinking; maybe this is necessary to talk this way now and look to one system rather than four or five different systems.”

Coun. Geoff Lyons questioned whether Ucluelet should be spending millions on new filtration systems considering regional conversations are taking place.  

 â€œKennedy Lake to me is a natural West Coast source of pure water and, if we can get the rest of the region to buy in, I think that’s the long term focus,” he said.

“You might have dirty water for a few years but I think the end result is the best answer.”

Irving took an opportunity during the meeting to remind locals they are currently under Stage 1 Water Restrictions.

“We haven’t had a real solid rain since May,” he said. “We’re 30 per cent below the average and it’s quite an impact on both our systems so the more we can be cautious about water use the better.”

reporter@westerlynews.ca