Niverville couple reeling after water and sewer breakdowns

Sarah Gatey and Bryan Claeys have enjoyed ownership of their home on Fourth Avenue South in Niverville for the past 13 years. Their time there has been relatively incident-free—that is, until one year ago when, within a six-week period, both their water and sewer utilities broke down.

For this couple, those weeks were filled with stress, frustration, displacement, and compounding costs they weren’t prepared for. Their hope is that no other Niverville family will have to go through the same.

But as aging utility infrastructure begins to give way beneath the ground, chances are that the older neighbourhoods of Niverville will suffer more of the same.

In fact, it’s really just a matter of time. According to CAO Eric King, more than 700 Niverville properties still operate on antiquated well and service line systems. Many of these wells and water and sewer service lines are 50 years old or older.

When the Well Breaks Down

Like so many other homeowners in Niverville, Gatey and Claeys share a well with two other homes on their street. Water service lines run from the well to each of those houses.

The couple signed a well agreement when they purchased the home. They knew from the start that any costs incurred because of the well or water lines would be shared three ways. They also knew that the well wasn’t located on their property.

On August 14, 2022, Gatey and Claeys found themselves with no water coming from their taps. A call to the neighbouring property owner resulted in some confusion as to the exact location of the shared well.

Gatey made a phone call to the town office only to discover that they have no records of the locations of private wells or their service lines.

Eleven days passed before a directional drilling company was able to come. They found a break in one of the service lines and repaired it.

The $5,000 repair bill was shared three ways.

“We had water for four days,” Gatey says. “Bryan was in the middle of showering when the water stopped again.”

The neighbouring property owner contacted the same drilling company. This time, it was determined that the well had collapsed and could not be repaired. The neighbour informed Gatey that they intended to hook up to the municipal water system.

Realizing they were on their own, Gatey and Claeys began looking into the cost of digging a new well on their own property. Another potential option was to connect to the well belonging to their neighbour to the north.

Based on their research, the cost of installing a brand new well would have come to between $10,000 and $15,000, depending on the depth of the water table.

Next, she called the town office to seek their advice.

“I contacted the town and they explained that because we have the municipal water line available, [municipal hookup] is our only option,” says Gatey.

In other words, the town would not permit either the digging of a new well or hooking up to a neighbouring well.

Four years prior, in 2018, a water main line was run from the water treatment plant on Spruce Drive to a new condominium development going in on Fourth Avenue South. At the time, the condominium developer footed the bill for the water main installation.

Gatey remembers the work being done to install the water main because it ran right through her front yard.

Looking to cover her bases, Gatey called the lawyer with whom they had originally signed their well agreement, seeking legal advice. She was told that they couldn’t help due to a conflict of interest.

She tried another legal firm that took a look at her case, only to determine that the couple had no recourse. This legal advice cost them $500.

On September 1, Gatey sent an email to the town office inquiring into the process of hooking up to municipal water. Six days later, with no response, Gatey finally went directly to the town office.

“It turns out that the person who deals with this was on vacation,” Gatey says.

Gatey and Claeys were provided with an agreement for municipal water hookup. By this time, they’d been without water for a full two weeks.

For the purpose of clarifying utility infrastructure terminology, there are two types of water and sewer pipes that run below the surface. Water and sewer main lines (or simply mains) are like streets running through a community. Water or sewer service lines are like the driveways that connect each home to the nearby street.

The town’s municipal water agreement states that property owners are fully responsible for hiring their own contractor to install a one-inch service line from the mainline to their home, which needs to include a saddle, curb stop, and shutoff valves.

Engineering supervision, provided by the town, is also required—at the resident’s cost.

A $2,000 restoration deposit is needed in order to cover the cost of any repairs to the roads, curbs, or sod once the work is complete.

Gatey and Claeys were also required to pay for the water main line that had been installed four years prior. They were charged $83.40 per linear foot, multiplied by the number of feet of frontage they owned. This rate was established based on 2022 installation costs as opposed to the 2018 costs which the developer had paid.

For the couple, the water main fee alone came to over $6,000.

Once the work was fully complete, Gatey and Claeys owed the contractor almost $11,000 for the service line installation. The town connection charges came to another $11,000, with some of it possibly being returnable once the grass was restored.

Finally, they incurred another $300 bill for the plumber they hired to hook up the water meter in their basement.

All in all, the entire water ordeal, including the lawyer, cost Gatey and Claeys more than $24,000.

Unfortunately for Gatey, she was on disability from her work due to a shoulder injury and living on a much-reduced income.

Then Came the Sewer Problems

Just weeks after the water issues were corrected, Gatey and Claeys experienced a sewer backup in their basement. The attending plumber ran a snake and found a break in the sewer service line running through the couple’s front yard.

Based on the fact that a water line had recently been installed in the same area, the plumber determined that there was some likelihood that the sewer line had been damaged by the contractor who installed the water line.

When confronted by Gatey, the drilling company didn’t agree with this analysis.

Unable to determine the extent of the sewer service line damage without digging, the company gave Gatey and Claeys an estimate of between $6,000 and $11,000 to repair the sewer issue.

This time, the main line for the sewer was on the opposite side of the street, meaning that Gatey and Claeys’ sewer service line ran beneath the street to the far side.

A conversation with Ryan Dyck of the town’s public works department revealed that if the service line was compromised and needed replacement, the couple would be responsible for the entire line, including the part which ran beneath the street and on town property.

As well, if trenching resulted in street or curb damages during the service line installation, Gatey and Claeys would be financially responsible for the street/curb repairs too.

The couple was shocked. As far as they were aware, most other cities or communities charged residents only for service lines up to their property line, not beyond it.

“It kind of makes you not want to live here if that’s the kind of issues you have to face,” Gatey says.

It took a full month before the contractor was able to come in and effect the repair. In the meantime, the couple and their daughter moved into their parents’ small basement to wait it out.

When the contractor finally arrived, he determined that the line was in sound condition and the leak was within the couple’s property limits. Still, the new bill came to almost $6,000.

All in all, within two months’ time, the couple faced unexpected bills adding up to $30,000 for water and sewer repairs.

Gatey reached out to the town’s administration office inquiring whether extended payment terms or financial relief could be provided on her $11,000 town bill due to extenuating circumstances.

She received a letter of response from the town office.

“Council is sympathetic to your situation, however, the circumstances surrounding your well failure and sewer connection issue were beyond the town’s control, and in the interest of being consistent with established policy, council has determined that no exception will be made, and no reimbursement for your water installation will be provided,” the letter stated.

Gatey and Claeys did receive some empathy from the drilling company they’d hired, who provided extended payment terms that the couple could manage. Gatey had to reach out to her parents for help with the $24,000 water bills.

Municipal Water vs. Wells

Mayor Myron Dyck says that when the municipal water project began years ago, council was faced with the decision of either taking a hard line with residents or allowing some flexibility. They chose the latter.

“To help with the costs, council of the day should have mandated that all residents hook up to water when [a main line] went past their place,” Dyck says. “Instead the policy of ‘when the well fails’ is in place and residents should be planning for it.”

Dyck is fairly confident that Niverville is one of the few larger communities left in Manitoba that still has homes connected to private wells.

And while many homeowners balk at the idea of paying for treated municipal water, he says that private wells aren’t without their own ongoing costs when one considers the need for water softeners and salt, iron filtration systems, and appliances and faucets with shorter lifespans due to running on hard water.

For other homeowners, the reluctance to change may be due to concerns about chemicals in their drinking water. Here too Dyck says that well water can be compromised, posing health risks and boil water advisories that are far less likely in a treated water system.

It should be noted as well that where there are municipal water mains, there are fire hydrants. Home insurance companies recognize the extra fire protection afforded a homeowner when a fire hydrant is in close proximity. Thus, they offer significant discounts.

Niverville’s CAO Eric King says that once the entire community is equipped with hydrants, the fire department will no longer need to own an expensive water tanker. As it stands now, they’ll have to invest in a new one soon just to continue offering fire services to homes that are hooked up to wells.

Until such time as everyone’s on municipal water, it won’t be a level playing field in terms of shared costs from one resident to the next, King adds.

When municipal water mains get installed in the older neighbourhoods, like Fourth Avenue South, nearby residents can enjoy the benefits of hydrants without any investment into the municipal water system, as long as they have a functioning well.

And when wells break down, council’s municipal water hookup policy is still pretty lenient, according to King. Currently, the only residents who are forbidden from digging new wells are those with an existing municipal main line running immediately past their property.

Those who are merely in close proximity may still have the option of digging a new well.

“This is all about making the people who have the water main in front of their house use the asset that’s there,” King says.

To try and expedite the incorporation of municipal water throughout the entire community, King and his colleagues have been applying for federal and provincial grants.

Earlier this year, a request was made for $3 million in funding on the basis of a 50/50 cost share.

“We have a grant and we’re trying to get the province to increase the percentage of the grant,” says King. “It’s a big project and affordability is the biggest challenge in everyone’s lives today.”

In the meantime, Mayor Dyck says that if 70 percent of any Niverville neighbourhood agrees to have a municipal water main installed on their street, council will put forward a request for provincial backing to help reduce resident costs.

“However, if a well fails and one has no water and has to get a hookup in a quick manner, there is no funding for that and one should expect to pay 100 percent of the cost to hookup,” Dyck concludes.

Why Residents Pay for Water Mains

According to the mayor, asking homeowners to cover the cost of sewer or water mains that run across their property is standard practice. In areas of new construction, the cost of the main line is factored into the price of each lot, based on the number of feet of frontage.

In the case of corner lots, it’s still only the front yard footage that matters.

“Residents will ask, ‘Why do I have to pay for this? Why does the town not pay for it?’” says Mayor Dyck. “The answer is that property owners who have town water have already paid for their water line when they bought their lot or house, and thus they will say ‘I paid for mine and you should pay for yours.’”

In the case of Gatey and Claeys, the cost of the water main had been covered by the developer who needed it for his new condo development. So why are these homeowners paying for it again?

King says that an agreement was made with this particular developer. For ten years following the installation of the main line, the developer will be reimbursed every time a homeowner along this stretch of line hooks up.

The same holds true if the town installs the utility main lines.

“There’s a line running through town that we installed in 2013 that runs from the water plant to the old arena,” says public works manager Ryan Dyck. “So when the people along there decide that they want to connect, it’ll be the same. They’re going to have to pay their share. You have to reimburse whoever paid for it, whether it’s a developer or the town.”

As to charging current year pricing for the main line, King says that interest paid, Public Utility Board fees, and other factors helped establish that particular council policy.

“That money has been lost from doing other things or from being reinvested into other projects,” says King.

Town Policy on Repairs to Service Lines

As already pointed out, Niverville’s policy regarding the responsibility for repairs or replacement to service lines clearly indicates that the entire line, regardless of whether it’s on private or town property, falls to the homeowner.

This does not mean that the homeowner owns the part of their service line that runs through town property. It’s still considered town-owned infrastructure, just without town culpability when it breaks down.

“It’s a philosophical question with no right answer,” says Ryan Dyck. “Should the town as a whole pay every time one of these [service lines] fails for something that only one person is going to get benefit out of? The council of the day, in 2017, decided it made sense for it to be the homeowner or the business owner.”

Similarly, in 2017 council also deemed that the costs for repairing damages to town property as a result of service line repairs would fall to the homeowner.

According to Ryan Dyck, that will affect more than 50 percent of Niverville homeowners.

“The main line will either be on one side of the road or the other,” Dyck says.

So on streets where the main line for either water or sewer run along the north side of the street, for example, all of the southside residents will have service lines running beneath the street.

But in some of the older neighbourhoods, the sewer line actually runs down the length of the street. In cases such as this, every homeowner on that street faces the possibility of street repair costs if their sewer service line fails.

The Drilling Process

The Citizen reached out to Casdon Masse of Precision Underground Inc. from Ste. Adolphe to learn more about the processes used when drilling for service line repairs or replacements.

Precision Underground Inc. is not the contractor used by Gatey and Claeys. Their contractor was unavailable for comment.

“We specialize in directional drilling, so to get underneath roadways without having to dig them up, the best method is obviously drilling underneath,” says Masse. “And then you never have to street cut or open cut anything.”

In his opinion, the only time street damage would occur on his watch is if the sewer line runs under the length of the street, or if the break in the line lies beneath the surface of the street.

Masse says that his company takes care of everything, taking some of the pressure off the homeowner. They begin by ensuring that they know where all underground utilities are located in order to avoid damaging something when they dig.

“When you call 811, that sends a request out to all utility companies registered in Manitoba,” Masse says. “That includes MTS, sewer and water, cable, Manitoba Hydro… they all get the notification that a line is being replaced.”

At that point, he says, each individual company with infrastructure in the area is required to run a search on the location and go out to mark any cables or pipes that are theirs.

Once Precision’s work is complete, Masse says, if necessary, they’ll have another company lined up to repair any street or curb surfaces if it’s work that his company doesn’t do.

As much as possible, Precision provides an estimate to the customer in full and in advance, which includes subcontractor work so there are few surprises.

Service Line Policies in Other Communities

The Citizen researched other communities to find out if or how their service line policies differ. The cities of Winnipeg and Steinbach, as well as the RM of Ritchot, clearly list their policies on their websites.

Many other communities or municipalities, like Niverville, do not.

In all three of the communities mentioned, the policy is the same. Sewer service lines are the responsibility of the homeowner all the way from the household connection to the sewer main, even if it extends beyond a homeowner’s property line.

Water service lines, though, are treated differently. In these communities, homeowner responsibility ends at the property line.

So it’s primarily the water service policy where Niverville seems to differ from at least some other major Manitoba communities.

Town Responds to Gatey and Claeys Concerns

Both King and Ryan Dyck agree that it’s unfortunate that Gatey and Claeys didn’t get a timely response from the town during their water crisis.

In times like these, they say, a call should be made directly to the public works emergency line where Dyck manages the calls even after hours. While there’s nothing Dyck could have done to assist Gatey and Claeys with their well water issues, he can always provide timely advice on next steps and recommendations for contractors.

And while they empathize with people who are faced with these sudden repair expenses, King says that the town isn’t in the business of providing financial relief.

“Where do you start and where do you stop?” King asks. “We’d have to be prepared to treat 6,500 other people the same way and we can’t afford to do that.

Is There Homeowner Insurance for Utility Service Lines?

The Citizen reached out to a number of local insurance companies regarding water and sewer service line coverage.

Cam Dueck of Hub Insurance says that this kind of coverage is optional but may not be available with every insurer.

Without deeper investigation, he was unsure whether any companies provide insurance for service lines that extend beyond the homeowner’s property.

Amanda Parkhurst of BSI Insurance reiterated the same sentiment.

“Typically, the service line coverage offered only responds to service line losses on your own property,” says Parkhurst. “It is always best to have a conversation with your broker to find out what your specific company provides coverage for, as this can differ from one company to another.”

Daniel Wiebe is the engineer for the town of Niverville. He’s been tasked by the town with investigating options for homeowner service line coverage. In recent months, he’s been in conversations with Service Line Warranties Canada (SLWC), a company that offers non-traditional insurance options for service lines.

If the town chooses to partner with the insurer, there would be some advantages to homeowners buying a policy through SLWC. Not only would they offer complete service line coverage, but they also monitor a 24/7 hotline and use a bonded list of contractors that they hire themselves. There is no deductible.

Conversely, this kind of insurance would come with a higher premium than standard insurance and there are some limitations to what they’ll cover.

Wiebe says that council has yet to decide whether and under what conditions they’ll partner with this insurance company.

Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen