ACEC-SK: Working Together For Saskatchewan’s Water

Like in many jurisdictions across Canada, Saskatchewan’s infrastructure is aging. Whether we’re talking about roads, bridges or water systems, the province is in need of improvements on many fronts. The Association of Consulting Engineering Companies – Saskatchewan (ACEC-SK), based in Regina, has recognized the need for infrastructure upgrades and replacements in many of Saskatchewan’s water systems, and is working with firms and municipalities to bring this need to the forefront for decision makers at all levels of government. “There are many factors at play here,” says Beverly MacLeod, Executive Director of ACEC-SK. “We’re dealing with aging systems and impending regulatory deadlines colliding. There are solutions to be found here but it’s a matter of will and bringing communities together.”1

Many of the province’s 700+ water systems date back at least 50 years and the time has come for rejuvenation. This is on top of provincial drinking water and wastewater systems facing mandatory regulatory changes, coming into force now and in the immediate future. The combination of these two factors mean that many jurisdictions are faced with costly upgrades at a time when budgets are dictating less spending, not more.  “Saskatchewan is facing tough decisions on many levels in our water systems,” says MacLeod. “Jurisdictions have to upgrade for practical and regulatory reasons, but funding may not cover the costs required.”

While communities may be able to patch together a short-term solution to meet regulations and keep current systems limping along a while longer—a “band-aid” for lack of a better word—ACEC-SK sees a better solution both short and long term: regionalization. “Our province is challenged by our low-density population and our hundreds of water treatment and distribution facilities, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” says MacLeod. “The solution could be communities with similar needs in close geographic proximity working together and pooling resources.”

Communities have the opportunity to come together to address their water and wastewater system issues, and in turn, make the necessary regulatory and infrastructure improvements needed for regulatory compliance and long-term sustainability. Plus, working together also means sharing the costs and the benefits. “We’re at a point where ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough anymore, especially with the impending regulations,” says MacLeod. “There’s a real opportunity here to make significant improvements while meeting regulations, and setting up communities with stable water systems for literally decades to come.”

Regionalization—and its pooling of resources—would also create a better environment for attracting and retaining the people required to manage water facilities. These specialized workers have proven hard to find and keep, mostly due to economic reasons. “Each facility employs technicians, and often offer salaries that simply can’t compete with other industries needing the same skills,” says MacLeod. “If communities pool funds, they will have a better chance at creating an environment where employees will want to stay long-term.”

The idea of regionalization is not simply an idea, either. It’s proven successful in the province already, with implementation in La Ronge and Saskatchewan Landing. The Lac La Ronge Regional Water Corporation (LLRRWC) incorporated in 2008 and began operation in 2010. The corporation supplies water to 6,500 residents and is jointly owned by the village of Air Ronge, the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the town of La Ronge. The entire region is supplied by one water treatment plant, and each partner manages the distribution network, reservoirs and billing. Because of the communities working together, they reduced duplication of services, improved service for the area, attracted more funding and created a single point of contact for operation. The Saskatchewan Landing Regional Water Pipeline Utility (SLRWPU) is also a success story in regionalization. Commissioned in 2015, the system supplies water to 2,500 people in the village of Wiseton, the towns of Kyle and Elrose, the rural municipalities (RMs) of Lacadena, King George, Milden, Snipe Lake, Monet and St Andrews, and Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park. “The benefits of these new systems cannot be overstated,” says MacLeod. “Working together has improved the water system greatly for the areas, spread costs around, and benefitted users. It’s a win all around.”

So, what will it take to gather communities together to prioritize their water systems and embrace regionalization? According to MacLeod, there are few factors at play. “First, jurisdictions need a champion to push the idea forward and build relationships with other communities,” says MacLeod. “A community leader who has engineering input could move mountains in this regard.” While a grass roots effort is possible, government also needs to provide incentives for communities to work together. “Alberta has made great strides in regionalization of water systems through its Water For Life funding model that fiscally encourages jurisdictions to work together,” says MacLeod. “That prioritization for grant dollars has made a world of difference, and Alberta is home to many regional water system success stories.”

With deadlines looming and infrastructure getting older and more stretched as each day passes, now is the time for Saskatchewan community leaders to take up the mantle of regionalization, to their great benefit. “We can’t overstate what a good solution working together can be for the province as a whole,” says MacLeod. “Communities get stable, modern water facilities with qualified technicians at the helm, and the costs and benefits are spread around. Why throw good money after bad and limp along, when we can literally reach out to our neighbours and work together? In our eyes, it’s a win-win.”