Stave Lake Water Project – YES OR NO?

There are many things we can do without. Water is not one of them. Dr. Richard Wolfenden, professor of biochemistry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill put it this way, “To say that water is essential hardly covers it.”

Over the past weeks, I have been listening, gathering information and learning about our water situation and the Stave Lake Water plan presented to taxpayers. Along the way, I heard from many people, most of whom are opposed to the project. Some opposition seems to be for reasons other than the project itself. Concerns such as; escalating property taxes, much higher water bills, the HST, the operating deficit of the Abbotsford Entertainment & Sports Center, perceptions of waste in day-to-day operations (work around the City), the uncertainty in the global economy, etc., etc.

In the face of all of these issues, and without much warning, a $300 million water expansion project is submitted to referendum. People don’t like surprises, especially when they are expensive ones and from government. The result can be feelings of betrayal and anger. Much of the angst that has been generated results from a “hurry up and decide” communication strategy. Quite frankly, I do not see the need to hire a PR firm at a cost of $200,000 to provide a promotional ‘advocacy’ campaign to sell the project to the taxpayers.

Let’s look at the facts. A few years ago, our water usage on a few days of the year approached the upper limits of our existing water supply capacity. With continued growth in the residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors, at some point we will need more water… lots more. Advocates for the “Yes” vote have expressed fear that water-reliant businesses will stay away from or leave Abbotsford. Frankly, I do not know of any objective evidence to support that concern.

I appreciate why some people want to vote “No” in the upcoming referendum.

  1. The 2016 deadline may not be as critical as is being made out to be. While I agree that we have a looming water issue, I am also convinced that the very recent water conservation efforts have not yet been given a full opportunity to work. Once people began to fully appreciate that Abbotsford has a ‘water issue’ and saw their ‘new’ water bills, residents very quickly began to change their use of water. It is making a difference. But we will not know what gains have been achieved until we have a full year’s data. I firmly believe that the residents of Abbotsford, if properly informed, will rise to the challenge of water conservation. Additional supply may blunt conservation efforts resulting in a short-lived and ill-considered “fix”.
  2. Projections for future water usage are based on a much higher rate of development than what has been experienced during the past 2 years. The ‘boom’ decade came to an end two years ago and it may be a long time before equivalent increases in water volume needs are required again. Since development growth has declined sharply, the assumptions built into the forecast models do not reflect today’s reality.
  3. We cannot count on the financial or other support of our neighbors in Mission. As of right now, Mission will not agree to share the costs of the project. Further, as I understand it, the project cannot proceed without expropriation of private land outside the borders of Abbotsford. Extra time would certainly provide a better opportunity to invite our neighbors in Mission to come back to the table, as well as give us the chance to build up our economic reserves.

I also understand why people would want to vote “Yes”. Their reasons include the following:

  1. A “No” could be interpreted as the community saying emphatically: no negotiating, no amendments, no opportunity to re-examine the evidence and alternatives that might be on the table.
  2. No” will result in water rates rising by 30 – 40 percent.
  3. Unless we vote “Yes” significant economic development may be seriously limited and new water-dependent industries may choose to stay away from Abbotsford. Tofino experienced an analogous situation in 2006 when, due to water shortages, tourism basically shut down. It is rumored that a major ‘wet industry’ business in Abbotsford may leave town if it can’t be assured of enough water for their product.
  4. From a fire safety perspective, water flows may not be sufficient to fight a major blaze (likely during summer months). Without a secondary source for water we may remain vulnerable as a community. The present water intake at Norrish Creek was almost wiped out by a landslide a few years ago. Had that happened, we would have been coping with a major disaster.
  5. A no vote would alienate current leadership as it would effectively disagree with all the work and recommendations of senior city staff and 8 of the 9 existing members of Council.
  6. The process would have to start all over sometime in the reasonably near future.

Regardless of the outcome, the citizens of Abbotsford need their voice to be heard. Regardless of how they vote, I will respect their decision and work with them to the best of my ability.

Leadership requires tough decisions to be made. They must not be made carelessly or without due consideration. They must not be made based on political or personal motivation. They must be made after carefully listening to the views of others, analyzing the data available, considering the consequences, and deciding “what is best for the most”.

This has been a difficult decision for me to make. I recognize the risk that I may lose votes from people who are otherwise supportive. However, contrary to my initial views, and with the greatest of respect for those who disagree, I will be voting “no” on the referendum ballot on November 19, and urging others to do so. My primary reasons are grounded in the lengthy (185 words in a single sentence!), difficult to understand, complex and ill-defined wording of the Referendum itself.

The Referendum is too complex. I believe in keeping things as simple as reasonably possible. The Referendum is far too wordy and complex to be reasonably understood by even a well-informed voter. It seems to have been written by lawyers, for lawyers, to withstand legal attack. I have spent many hours analyzing the issues, hours that the otherwise busy voter does not have. The issues have not been simplified, but remain complex. Complexity easily leads to confusion, and a confused vote should not lead to approval for such a major project. Difficult and detailed issues such as this need to be explained fully, carefully and objectively so as to enable all voters to make an informed decision. Unfortunately, this has not occurred. On the wording of the current Referendum, I do not believe that a “yes” vote would reflect the fully informed decision of Abbotsford residents.

  1. The Referendum is narrow and limiting. It unnecessarily limits the decision-making authority of elected City Council. Even though there may be agreements and details that are not yet in place, future latitude is limited by reason of the Referendum detailed wording.