Anthropology expert says Kelowna's $348M water plan misses the mark

A UBC Okanagan professor is warning the city of Kelowna, B.C. that its proposed water amalgamation plan might be harder to implement than the city's mayor might think.

Environmental anthropologist and Kelowna resident John Wagner told Radio West host Audrey McKinnon that integrating the city's water utilities is a huge undertaking.

The city's existing five water providers would be combined into one entity under the proposed $348 million plan.

Currently, when residents turn on their tap, they get a varying quality of water depending on the region where they live. The cost of water also varies from provider to provider as each one draws water from different sources.

The plan, if implemented, would simplify water distribution, with all water being drawn from one source, Mission Creek. 

Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran has said his office is happy to have a plan on the table, particularly one that the province has agreed to help fund moving forward.

Wagner says while the city pursues the plan, areas like the South East Kelowna Irrigation District he lives in will be left underfunded and unable to accomplish upgrades needed to improve water quality.

"I feel like I'm being discriminated against because my water utility, unlike the City of Kelowna or regional district water utilities, cannot get the infrastructure support we need to upgrade our service," said Wagner.

Concerns over new plan

Wagner says the plan will take at least five years, during which time the water quality will continue to be poor. He also says it is unlikely all five water providers will sign on for amalgamation, drawing out the timeline even further. 

Instead Wagner says the water utilities should stick to the Kelowna Joint Water Committee's original integration plan first proposed in 2012.

The earlier plan, Wagner says, called for the city's different water providers to remain independent, but upgrade their systems where necessary to meet health authority requirements.

Wagner says Kelowna had been onboard with the original independent upgrade plan, but thinks the city's push for the new total amalgamation is based less on water quality and more on streamlining its bureaucratic process.

He says he suspects the city would rather deal with one water provider, rather than five.

"The insistence by the city now on amalgamation as the only way, and their refusal to go along with what they had originally agreed to, has nothing to do with water."

Wagner also says there is such a thing as over-centralization.

"I think of my water utility office as neighbourhood institution … If I phone there, if I have a problem, I am instantly able to talk to somebody who knows what's going on and who has local knowledge of the problem." 

Three of the five water providers haven't signed on to the new plan, citing concerns over a lack of consultation and not having a say in the amalgamation process.

But, Mayor Basran has said the city intend to go forward with the new $348 million plan.

With files from Radio West