Water Roundup

A look at key water and waste water projects to keep pace with population growth

About $830-million worth of water, waste water treatment and related infrastructure projects are under construction right now in Alberta, according to the most recent quarterly Inventory of Major Alberta Projects.


The inventory-produced by Alberta Finance and Enterprise and listing projects from all sectors valued at $5 million or more-includes another $755 million in water-related projects that should see a construction start within the next couple of years.

Some of the biggest spending on water and waste infrastructure is in cities and municipalities that have experienced some of the fastest rates of population growth in the province over the last few years-as one might expect. In Fort McMurray, Alta., the largest centre in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the population jumped from 36,452 in 1999 to 72,363 in 2008, according to census data. The data, however, doesn't reflect a substantial "shadow" population, which varies in size, depending on the amount of oilsands development and maintenance underway. Nonetheless, this population, whether it shows up in official data or not, has to be accommodated with the necessary infrastructure, including water and waste management systems, says Darcy Elder, director of engineering for the regional municipality.

Growth slowed as major projects were completed and a sharp drop in oil prices took effect following the Wall Street crash in the fall of 2008. But Fort McMurray's population has continued to grow in the wake of a series new and revived oilsands projects that have been announced beginning in early 2009. Some projections have pegged its total population in the 250,000 range by 2016.

Two new large subdivisions are being developed in the oilsands city. Besides the recently completed $45-million Twin Forcemains project in Fort McMurray (see story), the regional municipality has over $360-million worth of water and waste water projects on its books that are either under construction or soon will be.

"We're doing a water main that has trenchless section going up the side of a hill to set up for a new subdivision of 20,000 people," Elder says. "We're also running a water main to another subdivision of an estimated 24,000 people. The work for the main includes boring under major roads."


UPGRADES AND EXPANSIONS

Along with new water and sewage mains, work on the municipality's water and waste infrastructure includes major upgrades and expansions to water and waste water treatment plants that service Fort McMurray. Elder says that just one of the new subdivisions accounts for over $100 million in spending on water and waste water infrastructure.

In Edmonton, EPCOR is continuing its program of upgrading the city's water mains with announced spending of $30 million on water mains for 2011, with about $20 million earmarked for the upgrade program. The company typically spends $10 million to $20 million a year on the program, which replaces older cast iron lines with more durable PVC pipe. The program began in the mid-1980s when cracks and deterioration in cast iron pipe often resulted in as many as 1,600 water main breaks a year.

About 500 kilometres of cast iron pipe have been replaced since 1985, and EPCOR says that the program is producing results. Last year saw 332 water main breaks in Edmonton, a big drop from the 1980s.

EPCOR has been aggressively growing the water side of its business. In 2009, the company took over Edmonton's Gold Bar waste water treatment plant from the city and bought Suncor's potable and waste water facilities for $100 million under a leaseback deal. In 2010, it completed upgrades on water treatment plants in Okotoks, Alta., Strathmore, Alta., and Taber, Alta., and won a contract to provide maintenance and other services for the Town of Banff's waste water plant.

Given the ongoing global economic uncertainty, it is no surprise that the corporate sector-in Alberta and elsewhere-is scrambling to dive into what is seen as a fast-growth market. According to the Edmonton Journal, Toray Industries, Inc., a manufacturer of membranes used to clean water, says that a new $500-billion market in running water supply and waste water treatment infrastructure will likely emerge over the next 15 years.

Water systems and other infrastructure have been a source of concern for Fort McMurray's residents as they waited for government to play catch up as the population ballooned. The City of Calgary, on the other hand, has already spent handsomely on water infrastructure to accommodate the recent population boom.


DEBT DOWNSIDE

But there's a surprising problem in the business-oriented city. Recent spending, including $300 million to upgrade the Glenmore and Bearspaw water treatment plants and $400 million on the Pine Creek sewage facility, has helped triple the city's water and waste water treatment debt to $1.3 billion over the past seven years.

About five or six years ago, when Calgary's and the province's economies went into overdrive, its city council exempted suburban developers from paying for the upgrades to water and waste water systems that were needed to support the new subdivisions that were sprouting up. Ratepayers would shoulder the cost of growth. By early this year, however, the city had changed course, and was "negotiating to make developers cover the water and waste water expansion costs once again," according to a recent story in the Calgary Herald.

The city still has some big projects on the books, but, overall, work looks set to be winding down. The $218.7-million upgrades on the Glenmore water treatment plant, begun in 2004, should be completed this year. Work is also underway on about $62-million worth of sanitary trunk projects.

Also, a weir that was originally built in 1904, and diverts water from the Bow River into canal system to support irrigation, is getting about $17-million worth of modifications. The Harvie Passage, as the weir modification project has come to be known, was necessary because, although the weir has an important function, it has a nasty side effect, summarized by rescue professionals as, "a drowning machine." The weir is located just east of the city's downtown business district.

Ongoing upgrades and repairs to parts of southern Alberta's crucial agricultural irrigation systems continue. Although work on the Carseland-Bow River headworks system began in the 1990s, the lion's share of the $100-million-plus series of upgrades has been done in the last decade, says Richard Phillips, general manager for the Bow River Irrigation District, which is based in Vauxhall, Alta. The work has included a rebuild of 66 kilometres of canal from the Bow River head gate just south of Carseland to McGregor Reservoir, improvements to the emergency spill system and the rebuilding of some dams. Predictably, much of the work has to be done in winter.


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