Canada's 'neglected' waste water infrastructure needs billions to fix
Halifax's 2,000 kilometres of aging water and sewer pipes are in need of $2.6B of work
Canada's crumbling infrastructure is expected to be at the forefront of Tuesday's federal budget.
Topping the list of the Liberals' campaign promises is $60 billion over 10 years for infrastructure projects — nearly double what the previous Harper government planned to spend.
"These investments have been put off for far too long," said Justin Trudeau during a campaign stop last summer.
In his pre-election speeches, Trudeau spoke about roads and transit, but there's infrastructure across Canada desperately in need of upgrades that the public rarely sees.
In Halifax, the city's 2,000 kilometres of aging water and sewer pipes need $2.6 billion of work.
"We've been trying to replace the infrastructure for decades but waste water has been a neglected piece of infrastructure for many, many years," Halifax Water's James Campbell told CBC's David Common.
"It's not just here in Halifax, it's common right across the country and we're a long way behind. We need the funding."
Big costs on municipalities' shoulders
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said part of the problem is that replacing pipes people never see is not a flashy way to show infrastructure spending.
"A lot of the money that you do get from infrastructure money from the feds tends to go to new, shiny things that can be shown off — pipes are not that — so I think a lot of cities had deferred maintenance issue on pipes," he said.
Being one of Canada's oldest cities, Halifax has a lot of aging brick and mortar pipes. One section toured by CBC was built in the 1880s, when Halifax's population was one-tenth the size of its current 400,000.
Often, those sections are decaying or collapsing after decades of neglect.
"The conditions down there are definitely a biohazard, dirty. It's dark and there's lots of things down there," said Alan O'Leary, a municipal worker.
Halifax pumped raw sewage into the harbour until it opened a $55-million treatment plant in 2008. Harbour beaches were later opened, to much fanfare.
However, the plant is not always able to handle all of the effluent produced. Heavy rain often overwhelms the system, prompting the city to advise swimmers near the Halifax peninsula to find another spot to take a dip while the tide dilutes the effluent back to safe levels.
Costs for big urban projects have traditionally been split evenly between federal, provincial and municipal levels of government. More recently, cities have been left on their own or with far less of a contribution from the federal government.
For example, the federal government paid for just one-sixth of Halifax's treatment facility, leaving ratepayers to cover the rest.
'Unsexy' waste water projects the 'backbone of the economy'
Campbell said the $2.6 billion needed to replace and repair Halifax's aging waste water and sewage pipes is an "enormous amount of money" for the municipality to cover on its own.
"But the reality is, water and waste water are the unsung heroes of the municipality. People don't think about water and waste water services because they're underground, they don't think about it until they're not working," said Campbell.
"It's not a sexy industry but it's really the backbone of the economy."
Trudeau has promised to fund some "unsexy" projects.
"The first two years we're going to do the unsexy things that governments hate to announce," he told a business audience last week in New York. "Recapitalization of infrastructure. Maintenance upgrades. The things you don't get to cut ribbons and announce shiny new buildings on."
Halifax, like cities across Canada, is waiting to see what the Liberals' promised stimulus spending will actually cover.
How urgent is the need to upgrade Halifax's aging pipes?
"I'd say it's one of the most important things that we can do," said Savage.
With files from the CBC's David Common