Over the past several decades in Alberta, there has been a trend toward the consolidation and regionalization of small water and wastewater treatment facilities into larger regional networks and commissions. Regionalization can help municipalities deal with concerns about the financial viability of small water and wastewater systems and the safety of the water supply by sharing regional pipelines, central treatment and supply facilities, or financial and operational resources. These approaches can help increase water safety, decrease liability, and reduce the costs for municipality.
Regional systems can take many different forms ranging from hard infrastructure, to operational consortiums that share water and wastewater operation staff between different systems. Regionalization is not “one size fits all”; every community has unique needs, and each approach has varying merit depending on different situations. For instance, if potential regional systems stretch over a large distance, the cost of infrastructure may be prohibitive. However, cooperation by sharing water and wastewater staff may still be very effective.
As mentioned above, regional systems are not a “one size fits all” approach. Municipalities often encounter challenges in the process than can block progress towards improving water safety and security. In spring 2015, AUMA members responded to a survey that helped identify the following major challenges with regionalization:
- Small communities have difficulty funding/obtaining reserves for infrastructure given the large distances infrastructure must cover, and low population densities.
- Many municipalities, particularly small communities, are concerned about a large increase in costs should they join a regional system or consortium.
- Some communities are concerned about a loss of autonomy or control over water and wastewater systems.
- Some communities are concerned that regional systems would not be any more efficient than standalone systems in their case.
Given these challenges, survey respondents identified the following actions to address concerns and meet challenges:
- A need for infrastructure funding.
- A need for the provision of best practices, models, templates, and examples.
- A need to educate the public on water and wastewater issues to assist municipalities in instituting sustainable solutions that may require unpopular changes in water cost.
To address these actions, AUMA has created policies on regional systems, and has assembled resources that can help inform municipalities thinking about transitioning to a regional system.
AUMA policy on regional water and wastewater systems
AUMA’s Municipal Water Policy includes the following policy statements pertaining to regional systems:
- The Government of Alberta should increase funding for regional systems and extend the funding commitment to cover all phases of regional system development and transition costs.
- Funding for regional systems should be consistent with inter-municipal and regional plans where they exist.
- AUMA will work with the Government of Alberta to explore emerging issues with regional systems such as a lack of direct access to funding for capital upgrades and disparities in regional funding programs.
- The Government of Alberta should ensure full consideration of long-term implications on water servicing and water use demand in land use decisions.
- AUMA will partner with the Government of Alberta to inform and support municipalities in reviewing and implementing regional systems including but not limited to:
- Factors to consider when deciding on the viability of a regional system.
- Governance options and funding models in establishing a regional system
- Governance in terms of the appropriate relationship between the regional system and each member municipality.
- The process for establishing regional systems.
- Critical factors for success in regional systems.
- Options for operational oversight of municipal distribution/collection systems even after joining a regional system.
In December 2014, the province released a plan outlining 20 immediate and five long term actions in response to AUMA’s resolutions and public consultation. The plan included an action to work with AUMA to identify opportunities for enhancing sustainability of municipal water systems through regional partnerships. AUMA is pursuing follow up on this action to address the challenges identified to members.
Resources and list of regional systems
In response to the need our members expressed for examples, best practices, templates, and other resources for regional systems, AUMA has developed a list of resources and current regional systems in Alberta. If your municipality is involved in a regional system that is not included here, contact us to share your story.