Upgrading sewage facilities: Who should pay?

May 6, 2010

Brace yourself for a debate over who will pay for the sewage treatment upgrades required under the proposed federal Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations.

The federal government quite rightly expects municipalities to pay to upgrade their systems. In its analysis of the impacts of the proposed regulations, the Department of the Environment maintains that the requirements “are affordable if all jurisdictions make wastewater funding a priority.”

When announcing the draft regulations, Environment Minister Jim Prentice was quick to point to federal assistance already available to municipalities: “As part of the infrastructure stimulus fund, we have already announced $740 million for some eleven-hundred (1,100) wastewater projects across Canada.”

The Department of the Environment likewise notes that several of the federal grant programs in place have supported wastewater infrastructure projects. Furthermore, it explains that communities have access to a number of funding mechanisms, including full cost recovery, debt financing, and public-private partnerships.

But it seems to understand that it is facing a fight, acknowledging that stakeholders have been “vocal in their concerns” and that they have overwhelmingly called for “funding that is proportional to the new federal demands.”

One such stakeholder is the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which has vigorously protested the lack of new funding. In September 2009, FCM President Basil Stewart wrote to Prime Minister Steven Harper, calling on his government to commit to a cost-sharing plan. Upgrading wastewater facilities, he wrote, will cost at least $12 billion over 20 years, and municipalities “cannot absorb these expenses on their own.” He continued, “In the absence of a sustainable, national funding plan, paying for these regulations will fall on the backs of property tax payers. This is offloading, pure and simple.”

The Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, representing municipal water and wastewater systems, has also raised concerns about the absence of dedicated funding or cost sharing among the three levels of government. In a recent presentation on the proposed regulations, the CWWA put these cost issues at the top of its list of “bigger” problems.

The federal government should resist municipal demands for new funding. The users of local sewage systems, rather than taxpayers across the country, should foot the bill for facility upgrades. No one (no individual and no community) has the right to pollute local waters, to jeopardize public health, to close beaches to swimmers, to harm fish or fish habitat, or to destroy shell-fisheries. Requiring users to bear the full costs of treating their waste is not “offloading.” It is, rather, an important example of “polluter pay” – one of the core principles of environmental sustainability.

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