‘Water doesn’t start or stop at a political boundary’ — Cooperation brings resolution to longstanding French Creek water issue

Sandpiper residents have dealt with a brownish-coloured, unappealing water supply for years. || Photo is a screenshot from a video Ron Ward submitted to the June 23, 2020 RDN board meeting.
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Residents of the Sandpiper subdivision in French Creek received some very exciting news in June — after decades of waiting, clear water will finally run from their taps.

The brownish, unappealing water currently being supplied often exceeds Canadian drinking water standards for its high levels of manganese when tested. Health Canada warns levels over its maximum allowed concentration can cause effects on neurological behaviour and development, memory, attention and motor skills.

An agreement between the Town of Qualicum Beach and the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) will see the town provide water, while the regional district continues to operate and maintain the reservoir and pump-house.

“This is absolutely the member municipality of the Town of Qualicum Beach and the RDN board setting a priority and working towards a really mutually beneficial agreement,” said Lehann Wallace, director for RDN Area G. She added solutions in the region need to be collaborative.

“That’s how things will need to happen. Water doesn’t start and stop at a political boundary.”

The new agreement’s cost to residents breaks down to, on average, just $1.24 per day, Wallace said. It is a small price to pay, considering well over half of residents have installed water filtration systems to deal with the issue, according to a 2012 water quality survey. The current bylaw for the French Creek Water Service allows for the increase in water rates, so Sandpiper residents will not be asked to vote on the plan, according to Wallace.

“All of our challenges in the future will require us to collaborate and cooperate. In coming to our decision on Sandpiper, we seriously considered the potential impacts of climate change on our system and concluded that we have the ability to help,” said Qualicum Beach Mayor Brian Wiese.

Sandpiper residents currently access their household water supply from a series of groundwater wells, leading residents to manage individual water treatment systems at their own expense. 

Larry Biccum has lived in Sandpiper since 2003 and said he was involved with the French Creek Residents Association, advocating to the RDN for a solution for years. He said he believes Wallace was the key reason the agreement happened.

“We’ve dealt with the incumbent in all the positions over the years and nothing ever happened. It just gets put off and put off, or ignored,” said Biccum.

The regional district has allocated $970,000 from the Electoral Area G community works fund towards the project. The funds will cover the capital costs to bring water to the reservoir, while allowing for infrastructure improvements and reinforcing the emergency water supply for the Chartwell and Eaglecrest communities, according to a joint release by the town and the RDN.

Community works funds are Federal Gas Tax revenue transferred to regional districts and managed by the RDN board and electoral area directors for capital infrastructure upgrades.

The 2012 water quality survey found 83 per cent of Sandpiper residents were opposed to the RDN exploring capital expenditure options to improve the water, which would have resulted in an estimated $500–600 property tax increase for 20 years.  

Ron Ward, who has lived in Sandpiper for over a decade, created a petition last summer, which was signed by 96 per cent of Sandpiper residents. He and two others submitted videos, requesting action to the board’s June 23, 2020 meeting.

“When I got that call from Lehann the other day I was just blown away. I can’t thank her enough,” he said. “I knew Lehann was in the trenches trying to work stuff out, but definitely I was in shock,” he said. Ward added he is also grateful to Qualicum Beach town council and RDN chair Tyler Brown.

Legislation required the item be discussed in camera and the lack of updates was a source of frustration for residents. 

“People were getting quite angry that perhaps it had been passed over again and that’s very challenging representing people because all I could inform them of was that to trust it was being worked on,” said Wallace. 

She said a lot of people do not understand the difference between how water services work in electoral areas. The RDN does not have a general expense account for construction of water-mains or water treatment plants in developed or new areas. In a regional district, the cost of a service is paid for directly by the benefitting participants only, Wallace said.

She said many residents believe there is a standard cost of about $500 per year in B.C., but added rates vary across the province. Because of the small size of the affected community, it was very difficult to get federal or provincial grant money.

“If you buy into a subdivision and it has a water supply with quality or quantity or infrastructure deficits, then in an electoral area, if you belong to that water service area then you have to pay to fix that,” she said.

The RDN, which attempted to purchase bulk water from the town in 2001 and 2013, said it expects Sandpiper residents will be able to access their new water supply in the fall.

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