When the well runs dry

Terry O’Neill
Western Standard
October 9, 2006

When the water pipes leading into the Vancouver Island community of Tofino very nearly went dry before the Labour Day weekend, Mayor John Fraser pushed the proverbial panic button, issuing an order compelling local businesses to turn off their taps. His Honour claimed it was necessary, since no rain had fallen the entire summer to replenish Tofino’s water supply. But the edict would cost resorts, restaurants and other tourist businesses dearly, as customers cancelled en masse their long-weekend getaways to the scenic Pacific community.

As the bad news spread across Canada, one local entrepreneur stepped forward on Aug. 31 with a solution: truck in water from neighbouring Ucluelet. Even better, Chris LeFevre, who owns several lodges and camping areas on the west coast of Vancouver Island, offered to cover the estimated $50,000 cost of the project.

In short order, the town was saved, and most promptly forgot about the close call – at least outside of Tofino. Back in town, LeFevre’s last-minute miracle has led to questions, such as: Why didn’t such an obvious solution come from Mayor Fraser? And since he was unable to prevent the shortage, or solve it without killing off tourism, how can he be trusted not to screw it up again?

An infuriated Lefevre says he’s partial to a kick-the-bum-out-of-office political solution. That may force some change, but the Tofino crisis has also led some to call for more market-based solutions to water problems.

Canadians may be blessed with an abundance of fresh water, but only a fraction of it is renewable and located near population centres. Tofino gets about 10 feet of precipitation a year, but has no adequate reservoir, and the local government, responding to pressure from taxpayers and environmentalists, has elected over the years to encourage conservation, rather than upgrade the water system.

But conservation campaigns are useless when water is essentially given away for free, says David Richard Boyd, an environmental lawyer who worked with the University of Victoria’s POLIS Project on Ecological Governance. Tofinans were shocked to discover, for instance, that one school had left its automatic toilets flushing throughout the summer. And why not? Under Tofino’s metered system, consumers pay 80 cents per 1,000 litres of water, plus another 72 cents for sewer charges (slightly higher charges kick in as usage climbs). “If you’re pricing water the way that Tofino is pricing water, you’re not even covering the cost of the water infrastructure,” Boyd says. “There’s very little incentive for individuals or families or businesses to conserve water.” If Tofino charged something closer to the actual cost of water – Boyd says about three times the price is more like it – “they’d have the resources to develop their water infrastructure in such a way that, over the long term, they can avoid problems.”

If anything, the fact that it took a businessman to head off Tofino’s crisis suggests that water privatization may be an even better solution, says Elizabeth Brubaker, executive director of the Toronto-based Environment Probe, an environment policy research group, and author of the 2002 book Liquid Assets: Privatizing and Regulating Canada’s Water Utilities. “It’s possible that an entrepreneur might have solutions that a bureaucrat might not come up with,” she says. A privatized water utility would likely still be a monopoly, tightly regulated by government, Brubaker points out.

As for LeFevre, he believes Tofino’s water system won’t ever work without better governance. “Sometimes you need a crisis before the tree gets shaken,” he says. “Will there be a responsible resolution of the problem? You bet there will, because if it doesn’t come out in the immediate term, it will come out pretty soon thereafter, because people will take it into their own hands to make sure there is a political resolution, me being one of them. I’m not going to sit idly by.”

Is this mayor prepared to fix the problems once and for all? Good question – and one with no answer, since Fraser didn’t respond to interview requests. Perhaps he’s too busy hiding from angry residents like LeFevre.

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