Ottawa, Manitoba stick Winnipeg with $1.4B tab for sewage treatment upgrades

Without help from the provincial and federal governments, Winnipeg's water-and-sewer bills could rise high enough to hamper the city's industrial competitiveness and wallop residential property owners who are also dealing with rising property taxes.

City stuck with tab for work ordered by province on advice of Clean Environment Commission

The City of Winnipeg faces a multibillion-dollar pricetag to do its part to prevent the ecological sun from setting on Lake Winnipeg. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

When the most expensive project in the City of Winnipeg's history is finished, there probably won't be a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. For symbolic reasons, politicians don't like being caught on camera at a sewage-treatment plant.

The upgrades to the North End Water Pollution Control Centre — the largest of Winnipeg's three sewage-treatment plants — are expected to cost $1.4 billion.

That cash will buy the plant the ability to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from the effluent it sends into the Red River. The money will also pay for a new processing plant that will transform biosolids — the partly treated sludge from all three of the city's sewage plants — into something safe to spread on fields as fertilizer.

The project was first envisioned in 2003, when the provincial Clean Environment Commission led Manitoba to order Winnipeg to improve its sewage-treatment processes. The city was told to upgrade its North End, South End and West End sewage-treatment plants in order to reduce the nutrients that flow into Lake Winnipeg, where phosphorus in particular feeds the growth of algae and vastly alters the ecology of the lake.

Work at the West End plant, which handles 10 per cent of the city's sewage, wrapped up in 2008. Upgrades to the South End plant, which processes 20 per cent of our sewage, are underway.

But work at the North End plant, which deals with the remaining 70 per cent of Winnipeg's sewage, remains in the conceptual-planning stage. This is mostly because both of its components are immensely complex.

But not entirely. The North End sewage can keeps getting kicked down the road because the City of Winnipeg has received no help whatsoever with this project from the other two levels of government, even though the tab for the city's sewage-treatment upgrades was supposed to be split three ways.

To date, the total funds committed to the North End plant by the federal government under Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau adds up to zero dollars.

Likewise, the total funds committed to the project by the provincial government under Gary Doer, Greg Selinger and Brian Pallister also works out to zero dollars, albeit with an asterisk: Doer pledged $195 million in 2007, but never came through with the cash.

Drowning in costs

This means Winnipeg is now planning to pay for a $1.4-billion project all by itself, partly by borrowing money and also by raising water-and-sewer rates to pay for the interest.

Add in $47 million spent on the West End plant a decade ago, $336 million on the South End upgrades that are still underway and billions more for combined-sewer upgrades, and the city faces an enormous, almost crippling wastewater-upgrade task.

It's not like Winnipeg has a choice. A provincial environmental order must be carried out, as the city can in theory lose its environmental license if it fails to comply.

But without some help from the province and Ottawa, Winnipeg's water-and-sewer bills could rise high enough to hamper its industrial competitiveness — this used to be a cheap place for factories to access water — and wallop residential property owners who are also dealing with rising property taxes.

The feds and province are helping the city pay for the South End upgrades, but nowhere near the level the city expected. They were supposed two cover two-thirds of the tab.

This is sort of like arguing you shouldn't have to pay a $50 restaurant tab because the server is going to spend his tip on beer.

Instead, the province contributed $17 million of the $336-million project cost, while Ottawa is in for $42 million. Together, that's 18 per cent of the total.

This should drive Mayor Brian Bowman and every member of council batty. But unless prodded by a reporter, they do not mention Winnipeg's wastewater-funding headache, for the same reason politicians don't visit sewage-treatment plants.

In short, sewage is not sexy. Elected officials would much rather make political hay out of funding for populist projects such as the Waverley underpass and other roadworks ordinary voters notice and actively care about.

The timidity of council is compounded by apathy at other levels of government. Asked why Ottawa isn't funding Winnipeg's wastewater needs last year, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said Winnipeg never asked.

This prompted Bowman to note there is no federal funding open to Winnipeg as it attempts to cobble together funding for the projects all three levels of government were supposed to fund.

Adding to the irony last year was the Trudeau government's decision to make Winnipeg MP Terry Duguid responsible for the health of Lake Winnipeg. In 2003, Duguid was the chair of the Clean Environment Commission when it said Winnipeg should aid the lake and all three governments should share the burden.

Duguid told CBC News last fall he expected that criticism. But the federal budget came and went last week without a peep about the North End Water Pollution Control Centre. 

Bowman also said this week he's not expecting any money from the province when Brian Pallister's government tables its budget on Monday.

Under the both the NDP and Tories, the province has attempted to argue it need not help Winnipeg pay for wastewater upgrades until the city stops siphoning off water-and-sewer revenue in the form of a dividend that helps balance the city's operating budget.

This is sort of like arguing you shouldn't have to pay a $50 restaurant tab because the server is going to spend his tip on beer. The city's illogical financial choices does not eliminate the 2003 provincial environmental order.

If Winnipeg can't be bothered to do its part, how can anyone expect every city, town, farm, factory and cottage from Edmonton to Atikokan, Ont. to get their effluent act together?

There's also the argument the wastewater upgrades are pointless. True enough, after billions are spent, the city's share of nutrient loading into Lake Winnipeg will drop from four to six per cent of the total for the entire drainage basin, down to two to four per cent.

​That argument, however, ignores the symbolic importance of the Manitoba capital to the so-far lacklustre effort to save Lake Winnipeg from ecological catastrophe.

If the only city in the Lake Winnipeg watershed that's close to the body of water can't be bothered to do its part to reduce its phosphorus outflows, how can anyone expect every city, town, farm, factory and cottage from Edmonton to Atikokan, Ont. to get their effluent act together?

When phosphorus reaches Lake Winnipeg, it feeds the growth of algae that many people find unsightly. That's just part of the problem, as the death and decomposition of all that algae deprives the lake of oxygen.

The resulting low-oxygen dead zones are inhospitable to fish and other organisms. But that's just part of the problem, as the kidneys capable of cleansing the lake — the massive wetland known as Netley-Libau Marsh — have been hampered by Manitoba Hydro's artificial regulation of the lake.

The province conceded the latter point in 2015, when it released a long-awaited report into Lake Winnipeg regulation. Not many people read that document, thanks to its release on federal election day.

The bottom line is, neither the province nor Ottawa are holding up their end of one of the only tangible means of reducing Lake Winnipeg's nutrient loads. Luckily for them, elected officials at city hall would much rather talk about roads and go to ribbon-cutting ceremonies at underpasses.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.