KAMLOOPS – A group of irrigation water users in Kamloops received a reprieve on a city plan to undertake a $14 million system upgrade that would leave users on the hook for the bulk of that cost.
Representatives of the Noble Creek Irrigation System petitioned Kamloops city council November 3 to cancel the local area service (LAS) the city planned to implement to recover 80% of the project’s cost from NCIS users.
Kamloops had committed to funding $2.8 million of the project but the 47 property owners within the service area would need to pay their share of the remaining $11.2 million based on parcel size.
The cost per property ranged from just over $5,000 to over $1.9 million to be paid as a one-time sum or as an annual payment on the parcel’s property tax over 30 years, with interest accruing on the amount owing.
Kamloops cattle rancher Jon Peachey says the interest would bankrupt his 248-acre farm.
“I am significantly impacted with the cost of this because I can only irrigate arable acres but I would have to pay for the total acreage if the LAS procedure went through,” he says. “The proposed LAS would cost me just under $2.6 million. With interest, by my calculation, payment for irrigation water would be approximately $175,000 per year if current water charges remain the same and the LAS is implemented. This translates to $1,400 per acre per year for the next 30 years, which makes my farm completely non-viable. … There’s no hope of competing in that circumstance; it’s a hopeless situation.”
The process around the NCIS began in 2016 when city staff requested council’s direction on the future operation of the financially failing and aging system, some of it dating back to 1968. Much of the system is constructed with asbestos cement pipe that has an approximate lifespan of 60 years.
Kamloops-based engineering firm Urban Systems released a condition assessment of the system to Kamloops council in mid-February. It provides recommendations for repairs and upgrades to the system including a new concrete reservoir at a cost of almost $4.2 million.
Users received notice of the need for the upgrades in a letter from the city on October 21. The letter gave the option of opposing the LAS via a counter-petition.
“The last time we were consulted was July 31, 2019. It’s been 15 months and then we received another crummy letter,” says farmer Adam Woodward, speaking on behalf of 40 NCIS users.
He says the group could easily defeat the LAS through the assigned process.
“We’re confident that we can, however it’s not a good use of time and taxpayers’ money,” says Woodward of the family-run Woodward Christmas Trees and Woodward Cider Co. “More importantly, if we don’t reject it now, it says we do accept the process and associated costs to the users, which we currently don’t.”
Woodward says the Urban Systems report provides good information on the system but users take exception to the city going ahead with the entire project regardless of people’s ability to pay.
“It appeared that city staff just grabbed the report and elected to choose all the optional items that were in there,” he notes. “If this goes forward, it will simply put farmers out of business, devalue our land, and how does that benefit the community?”
Riverbend Orchard co-owner Carole Gillis applauds the city for its work to offer winter stock water to NCIS users but says more effort is needed around consultation with farmers.
She suggests the creation of an agricultural advisory committee as recommended in the city’s agricultural area plan.
“I would suggest that if that an (AAC) had been established, we might not find ourselves in this place because I would argue that the farmers represented on the (NCIS) collectively embody every single aspect of the strategies and goals of your local agricultural area plan. And we can only do so if we have access to irrigation as the plan acknowledges.”
Debbie Woodward of Woodward Christmas Trees says the system is subsidized by about $130,000 annually because rates have not increased since 2001.
“If we’d had an increase of even 3% per year, the revenue you are enjoying now would actually be double what it is today.”
NCIS requested that council halt the LAS process, create an AAC, do an agricultural economic assessment on the land, enhance infrastructure management, and seek funding from provincial and federal levels of government for a portion of the project costs.
Influenced by the arguments, council voted to stop the LAS process on November 3.
“This has been a bit of a clunky process,” notes councillor Arjun Singh. “I understand the angst and respect how the users feel hearing about this at a time when they feel they haven’t had a lot of time to work with it and touch and feel what we’re proposing here. We have been trying very hard to figure out how to make this work.”
Councillor Bill Sarai says it is important for them to support local agriculture.
“I want you guys to succeed. I don’t want a farm to go under for a financial reason. I don’t think that’s what we’re here for. We need to find a solution and I think that’s what local governments are for.”
Mayor Ken Christian welcomes the creation of an AAC to encompass the numerous farming communities within the Kamloops region including Heffley Creek, Knutsford, Campbell Creek and Barnhartvale.
“I think there’s enough interest there that we could have an engagement group that would feed information through to council through a community relations committee,” he says.
Christian says the city is constantly seeking outside funding for such projects but much of the funds offered by higher levels of government are for domestic, not agricultural water projects.
He takes exception to NCIS users comparing Kamloops agricultural water rates to those in Kelowna. He says NCIS users have a separate domestic potable water system (created in 2010 at a cost of $5.5 million) whereas the Kelowna systems are shared by domestic and agricultural users.
Christian says it is unfair for the NCIS system to be subsidized by domestic water rates because none of Kamloops’ other agricultural water systems are subsidized.
He suggests that NCIS users consider taking over the system and undertake repairs as needed, a plan the city cannot follow because it is obligated to bring the system up to the engineering standard.
“There’s a bit of a disconnect because the users out there wouldn’t normally go for that complete reconstruction; they would probably do something that was much less expensive. They have the ability to do that; we unfortunately don’t,” he explains.
After reversing the LAS process, the city released decisions made at closed council meetings leading up to the recommendation to implement the LAS process.
Christian instructed city staff that further NCIS discussions be open to the public.
“I want to have that discussion occur in an open session of council so it’s like any other matter that comes before us on a regular basis until it’s resolved,” he says. “The one thing I know for sure is that system will fail. What I don’t want when it does fail is people pointing fingers saying you didn’t do this or you didn’t do that. I want to have good, frank, open discussions about what the future is. We can’t ignore this problem.”