Saskatoon

The water tastes funny. So does this municipality's 'disrespectful' plan for a redo, locals say

As the Saskatchewan government butts out of a heated local dispute between the hamlet of Lone Rock and its municipal leaders, residents are building a defence against a rezoning plan they say is unfair and founded on shaky grounds.

Residents of Lone Rock, Sask., are mobilizing against a rezoning plan they say is unfair

Lone Rock, Saskatchewan resident Theresa Buck says she gets the feeling the Municipality of Wilton just wants to get rid of some residents. (CBC)

More questions are being raised about municipal leaders' controversial plan to remake a tiny hamlet and — despite outcry from some locals — the provincial government says it is not stepping into the fray.

Last week, the Rural Municipality of Wilton confirmed it's using a numbered company to buy up homes in its tiny hamlet of Lone Rock, located just southeast of Lloydminster.

The plan comes in response to a number of built-up pressures, according to the municipality.

Glen Dow, the reeve of the RM of Wilton, said Lone Rock's small population of 76 residents can't cover the costs of their water and sewer services.

To make matters worse, the municipality says the quality of Lone Rock's drinking water continues to decline and that only a costly new water treatment plant would fix that.

I get the feeling they'd like us all to leave so that they can do what they want with the land.- Theresa Buck, Lone Rock resident

So the municipality has come up with a Plan B that some locals say was crafted without any public consultation.

It involves converting land in Lone Rock into a country-style subdivision with larger, redeveloped lots and new homes whose residents, whether loyal standbys or newcomers, would have to arrange for their own utilities.

But in a community where people already complain about the taste of the water — "It smells," said resident Lloyd Ludwig — the municipality's plan and approach has also left a sour taste in locals' mouths.

Some have complained about having only a matter of days to consider the municipality's purchase offer. Some wonder why they haven't been made offers while others have. Others are incensed at the municipality's only-recently-disclosed use of a numbered purchasing company.

"To me it's a very disrespectful way to treat people that have been here, taxpayers, for a long time," said Ludwig.  

Fellow resident Lloyd Ludrig says the municipality's plan to buy homes and rezone the community is "disrespectful" to the community's taxpayers. (CBC)

Theresa Buck, a senior living with several cats, is more blunt about what she calls the municipality's "lack of disclosure."

"We all feel like we're not that important. I get the feeling they'd like us all to leave so that they can do what they want with the land," she said.

Budget pressures and 'cost reductions'

Dow defends the plan as a "logical" step.

Lone Rock has been propped up by nearby oil and gas activity since the late 1940s, but that activity began to rapidly decline as far back as the 1970s, according to the municipality. At some point, when the former town lost its school and elevator, Lone Rock was downgraded to a hamlet.

Lone Rock is a small hamlet contained within the larger Municipality of Wilton. (CBC)

Recent community newsletters have hinted at the larger municipality's financial challenges. A fall 2015 update stated, "With the slowdown in the oil sector, careful review of budget and forecasting have resulted in cuts to all areas of our operations from manpower to projects."

More recently, in a summer 2016 message to residents, the municipality wrote that "council has been focused on cost reductions by way of personnel adjustments, mindful contractor and material costs, improved productivity, and planned activities."

Water is safe to drink, says regulator

Then there's the other spark for the municipality's redevelopment pans: Lone Rock's problematic drinking water.

According to the municipality, the water disliked by locals for its taste nevertheless meets provincial guidelines for safe drinking. And that checks out with Saskatchewan's Water Security Agency.

Patrick Boyle, the agency's executive director, said the water in Lone Rock contains elevated levels of naturally-occurring ammonia. Records on the Sask H20 website also show higher-than-allowed levels of alkaline, sodium and total dissolved solids.

The ammonia is not a health concern in itself, as the human body naturally produces and metabolizes ammonia, according to Health Canada's safe drinking water standards.

But Boyle said "ammonia is an issue because it consumes chlorine that's added [at a water treatment plant] and that can decrease the effectiveness of the disinfection process. There's an opportunity for bacteria to enter the system."

According to the Water Security Agency's most recent annual inspections, however, there are no signs bacteria is making its way into Lone Rock's drinking water.

"Is that being treated and is it safe? Our records indicate, and what we've seen from the testing is, yes it is," said Boyle.

'The cost is too great'

Still, the Rural Municipality of Wilton told its residents this week that "increasing regulation and system failure" — such as a water main break last December that forced residents to boil their water — means a new plant and delivery system may be needed as early as 2022.

Meanwhile, recent newspaper ads from the municipality have warned residents about the impending cutoff of their water.

The Municipality of Wilton is running newspaper ads warning residents of Lone Rock that their water service may get cut off as soon as 2022.

The cost of a new system is an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million, though Dow said the cost could creep as high as $4 million, when other features, like new water meters, are factored in.

Add in another $1.5 million for needed sewer upgrades and "the cost is too great," said Dow. "The water quality's difficult, but it's the cost to upgrade the system with so few residents able to carry the burden."

Lone Rock's tiny population only covers about half of the cost of current water and sewer services; 10 of its 76 residents are in arrears, said Dow.

It's out of those economic conditions that the home-buying and country conversion plan was born, said Dow. About a dozen residents have taken the municipality up on its offer so far, he said.

"We had a gentleman who did decide to sell his home," said Dow. "He was an elderly gentleman whose partner had been deceased for some time and he kind of felt stuck in Lone Rock because of the value of property.

"He felt it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to sell his house, which in this market wasn't possible, and to be able to get closer to essential services."

Residents question the numbers

For some residents, the plan, and the municipality's case for it, just don't add up.

According to the Water Security Agency, Lone Rock's water treatment plant was upgraded nine years ago.

"That would be considered relatively new compared to a lot of communities across Saskatchewan," said Boyle. 

Lone Rock has had issues finding qualified operators for its plant, which could lead to inadequate maintenance of facilities, said Boyle.

"Ensuring that ongoing and proper maintenance is happening, that can extend the life cycle of your plant," he said.

Community newsletters from the Municipality of Wilton show a region struggling with economic pressures in the wake of waning oil and gas work. (CBC)

Melissa Heney, one of the residents blindsided by the community conversion plan, said getting information from the municipality has been difficult.

"We've asked, 'Where did they get their studies? How they came up with the system they have now?' I questioned how much research they actually did," said Heney.

"Where'd they get their numbers from?" echoed her partner, Randy Holt.

Cheaper alternative available

Dow said the up-to-$2-million estimate for the new plant came from an engineering firm's 2014 report. 

"Even if it's upgraded, the water quality, even in terms of its aesthetics, is going to still remain poor," he said.

That's at odds with the views of one Saskatoon group.

Nicole Hancock, the executive director of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation, said systems exist that would take care of all contaminants and produce water that "would taste and smell great."

"I think that they should build a high quality treatment plant for a fraction of the cost," said Hancock. "We think that it would cost them less than $500,000. That's less than one-sixth of the cost."

"I don't think they've looked into these options," said Heney. "I don't think they want this town to stay here."

Sask. gov't is staying out of it

Despite resident's concerns, Dow said the Municipality of Wilton will "shortly" begin discussing its rezoning plan for Lone Rock with Saskatchewan's Ministry of Government Relations.    

Dow's hopeful that 30 to 40 per cent of the population for the reimagined Lone Rock will consist of people who decided to stay in the community.

"We're happy to have some of those folks," he said.

He said the municipality will do what it can to help those residents pay for their own water and sewer systems, including bulk purchasing wells and cisterns to bring down costs.

I don't think they want this town to stay here.- Lone Rock, Saskatchewan resident Melissa Heney

According to the ministry, it takes about 30 days for the ministry to review and approve a rezoning bylaw, but a local public hearing needs to happen first.

"All landowners that would be affected by the proposed change must also be informed," said a spokesperson for the ministry. "The responsibility rests with the local government to consider public concerns prior to adopting and submitting the bylaw to the province."

The ministry is not stepping into the situation in Lone Rock, the spokesperson added. The ministry only does so in "extreme" cases and when residents have exhausted all other options, such as contacting the provincial ombudsman and petitioning for a financial audit.

Heney said that — in addition to talking to a lawyer — is exactly what she and other alienated Lone Rock residents intend to do.

"We just want everybody here to get what's fair," she said. 

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

Story tips? guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

with files from Marianne Meunier

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