Sunday, March 30, 2014

More Water Woes

Once again, past neglect of infrastructure maintenance and replacement is costing us far more than the investment in these basic responsibilities would have.  This long cold winter is causing problems with water - broken water mains and frozen water pipes mean that one of the basic requirements of life hasn't been available for some city residents for weeks.  It has also illustrated that our ways of dealing with these disruptions need to be revised.

We thought that it was bad two years ago when the whole city was under a boil water order for six weeks.  While the current problem doesn't affect the whole city, for those affected, it's much worse.  At least with the boil water order you could still flush your toilet and have a shower.  For homes with no water or sewer, all their routines, throughout their day, have to be adjusted.  And for seniors, or those housebound for reasons of poor health, it's even more difficult.

I have received more phone calls about this problem than any other in recent memory.  Most people understand that with the number of breaks, the city can't fix them all at once (although there is the occasional caller who feels that they should be at the top of the list).  But most people would just like to know when they can hope to have water again.  If you know that it's going to be weeks, then maybe you'll make plans to move in with friends or family for the duration, but if it's only going to be a few days, perhaps you'll tough it out.  And the phone calls I'm getting are to see if perhaps I can find out how long it's going to be.  I'm not having much luck in finding that out, but when I checked on Friday, we were up to more than 90 homes without water.

While I appreciate that city crews and the extra contractors we've hired are doing their best to get the situation resolved, from an administrative perspective, I think we need to provide more support.  Finally, we have taken the step of providing residents with access to showers at the Kinsmen Arena (which also highlights the oversight in the design of the field house when showers weren't included).  Drinking water is being provided to homes without water, but rather sporadically, and not in very large quantities.  We need to have a set schedule for delivering water, so that people can arrange their lives to be there at the right times.  Or perhaps have cases of water available at City Hall for affected residents to pick up.

And we need to figure out an approximate timeline for when people will get this basic service back, so that they can plan how they will deal with the difficulties.  We should be able to estimate how long it's taking to fix each problem, then extrapolate from that to set out timelines.  It's a basic part of providing good customer service that we need to get better at.

I also think that we shouldn't be charging people for a service that they're not getting.  I know that it will be difficult to adjust the water bills of these residents, but I know that if I had gone without water for several weeks, I wouldn't expect to have to pay for a service that I didn't receive.  More than one resident has said that this adding insult to injury better not happen.

Going forward, I think that council has to take a similar approach as we started for road repairs last year, this time looking at our underground infrastructure.  Not surprisingly, the problems are in the east and west flats and midtown areas - those areas where improvements have not kept pace with the newer parts of the city.  Council's decision to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on picking up grass clippings, rather than investing that money in water pipe replacement so that people can rely on having drinking water - I know which one I think is more important, and I think that most people would agree.  And that's why I keep arguing every year, both during the budget process and after, that we need to look at everything that we spend money on, and make sure that we're covering the basics, before we spend money on the nice to haves.

It's just unfortunate that it takes things like the current water crisis to drive the point home.

"Water is the driving force in nature." - Leonardo da Vinci

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