Elimination of long-standing provincial funding in the mid-1990s led the County of Oxford in Southwest Ontario to develop its own funding support program for existing residents—a program funded by the county’s existing utility customers.
In the county’s experience, the capital cost is always a significant concern for existing residents when projects to provide municipal services to existing communities are considered. In 2001, the county developed the Community Servicing Assistance Program (CSAP). At the time, the program provided a 25-per-cent grant up to a defined maximum of $7,500 per water or wastewater service to owners of existing residential properties where a servicing project was implemented. In 2012, the maximum cost to residents was adjusted to $9,500 per water service and $12,500 per wastewater service, with a yearly inflation increase.
The servicing challenges facing the County of Oxford are, perhaps, typical of rural areas across Canada. Known as the “Dairy Capital of Canada,” Oxford’s land area is 202,000 hectares and the predominately rural countryside includes a few urban centres and many small villages. Responsible for 18 community water systems and 11 community wastewater systems across eight municipalities, the county has considerable experience with small-systems planning and operations.
Ongoing challenges for Oxford include concerns for aging private well and septic systems, development pressures from outside cities like London and Kitchener, community revitalization and economic development goals, and long-term sustainability of both the water resources that support services and the financial resources that provide those services.
Funding for the CSAP originates from the county’s existing utility customers. Initially with much discussion, it was decided that existing customers will receive the two following benefits from the program:
• Enhanced groundwater protection for the aquifers servicing the municipal systems by expanding service areas; and
• Improved long-term sustainability of all the county’s systems through a larger customer base.
There are approximately 30,500 water customers and 27,500 wastewater customers in the County of Oxford. A modest yearly fee of $10 per water customer and $10 per wastewater customer contributes $580,000 annually to the program reserve fund (approximately two per cent of the total water and wastewater yearly revenue).
Since 2001, 21 projects have been completed, providing services to more than 2,400 properties. The total cost of projects completed as of 2012 is $38.3 million, of which $6.6 million—17 per cent—was paid through the program.
The proportion of program funding to date is indicative of the careful and cost-effective planning of projects completed by the county including extending systems and use of new technologies, such as directional drilling, variable grade small diameter sewers, and alternative service levels. In some instances, however, servicing costs and associated draws on the program reserve can be high. For instance, the county is currently considering wastewater servicing alternatives in the community of Princeton in the Township of Blandford-Blenheim where, under some alternatives, the total grant amount would approach 50 per cent of project costs.
Implementation and administration of the CSAP along with the new small systems projects and upgrades to the many existing small systems in Oxford have provided many challenges for county staff. The following are lessons learned:
• Even with the grant, affordability is still an issue with residents. The county has developed alternatives for payment of the property owner’s share of costs—a lump sum payment within 30 days of notice, payment of 50 per cent within 30 days before financing the remainder over five years with interest, or financing the entire amount over 10 years with interest.
• While capital cost is an important consideration for residents, long-term operating costs are studied carefully by the county and presented to residents as part of the alternatives analysis process. Also, the county has found the total community cost of the do-nothing alternative—individual private system rehabilitation and replacement over time—is a valuable piece of information for a community participating in the decision-making process.
• With a large number of existing systems, extension of transmission/collection capacity across considerable distance is one of the servicing alternatives frequently considered by the county. With a number of transmission mains in place, the county has experienced operational issues, which have required some effort to rectify and contribute to decision-making for new projects.
Like many jurisdictions across Canada, the demand has been very high for extension or standalone decentralized water and wastewater services for the small communities in the County of Oxford over the past 13 years. CSAP, as well as the efficient use of existing infrastructure and new technology and service standards where applicable, have produced several made-in-Oxford solutions to the county’s small systems servicing challenges. WC
Roddy Bolivar, P.Eng., is a water resource consultant specializing in policy and practice innovation to address water management challenges. This article appears in Water Canada’s September/October 2014 issue.