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Canada’s water services

As a suburban Christchurch lad, getting to experience working life in Vancouver was something of a culture shock. Canada, while remarkably like New Zealand, is also very different – especially the scale.

I first noticed it as I stood on a Vancouver sidewalk staring up at all the 20 storey apartment buildings. Passing me were Vancouverites; fit, well groomed (beards included), sipping something herbal and organic, carrying their yoga mats and walking their tiny designer dogs back to their $1.5 million apartments.

The scale can be seen in the way water services are delivered across Canada. Instead of two levels of government there are three to navigate; municipal, provincial and federal. The provincial tier introduces more complexity for infrastructure standards, laws, political views, funding models and – dare I say it – rivalry. Each Canadian province is distinctly its own and has a great deal of pride in how things are done.

When Canadians cut their provincial pies, they make a lot of slices. The western coastal province of British Colombia is comparable in population to our country with five million people but has almost three times the number of councils/municipalities.

You may feel the New Zealand system is bloated with 67 councils, but British Colombia has 162. That’s 162 organisations vying for engineering and asset management resources, and for funding to get their infrastructure projects over the line.

Vancouver is the largest city on the west coast and has its share of challenges getting projects over the line. Metro Vancouver provides the bulk water supply and wastewater treatment services for the greater Vancouver area.

While this is a good thing the flipside is that the directing board of Metro Vancouver has 40 people sitting on it. To complicate matters further, over half of them are local (and vocal) mayors.

Consider a scenario where the wastewater from one area needs a new pipeline route cut through the neighbouring councils to reach the treatment plant. You’d better hope the engineering plans don’t show lines crossing anywhere near the neighbouring mayors’ houses. Good luck chairing that debate!

However, Metro Vancouver allows the scale of operation that a place like Vancouver needs. Most of the infrastructure spend is going towards growth and legal compliance. Two new wastewater treatment plants are required to support the city at a cool $1 billion each.

Pipelines are massive too. You can stand with arms and legs outstretched inside the new three-metre diameter casing pipe that is about to be bored into the ground at a new pump station.

Canada largely escaped the 2008 global financial crisis and money flows when it comes to infrastructure. With plenty of money, wide road corridors and a growing economic base, a different mindset prevails. Bigger is better: just get it done.

This mindset means that formal asset management is less prevalent in decision-making than what it might be. Significant population growth and available money for new infrastructure crowds out the focus on optimising existing infrastructure, which is often out of sight and out of mind.

Here’s the lumberjack analogy: so many trees to cut that there’s no time to sharpen the axe. So, it’s a challenge to promote asset management when it’s not on the asset owner’s radar.

Another big difference is that in New Zealand asset management is effectively mandated onto councils as part of the Local Government Act. With no such mandate, Canada has a gap of 15 – 20 years in asset management culture.

There are pockets of great asset management work in Vancouver but, without the blanket mandate, every asset management project needs its own justification for going ahead.

This is a handbrake, although not necessarily a bad thing. Theoretically if all asset management projects require this justification, they will be more acutely focused on delivering value and answering an asset owner’s question of “what’s in it for me?”

Saving money over time or boosting the service provider’s reputation is a persuasive place to start. This can help separate effective asset management planning and infrastructure strategy from expensive reports that only get used as door stops.

Perception is reality in decision-making and it’s easy to forget that in New Zealand, public infrastructure has been responding to a recent history of earthquakes, floods and water quality events.

These same risks exist in Vancouver but, without the recent history, the overall perception isn’t the same. Industry professionals are well aware of their position on the Pacific Ring of Fire seismic subduction zone and the 1300 mm annual rainfall. It’s just that human psychology doesn’t allow the threat of natural disaster the same status as an experience of actually going through it.

Every failure is a valuable data point for an engaged asset manager, so it can be seen as good news that some things are starting to break in Vancouver. In September a downtown water main burst on the major traffic route to the Lions Gate Bridge.

Adding to the “consequence of failure” was the Vancouver Art Gallery right next door. If the spouting water had taken a different angle the city might have been up for the billion-dollar replacement bill of a saturated art collection.

The news piece on the burst was interesting – highlighting that the pipe was old and due for replacement. The headline should actually have read as “overdue”. Apparently, the replacement was pushed out because, politically, the city wasn’t interested in closing one of the busiest streets for proactive pipe renewal.

A selected quote from the news article: “…the city had plans to replace the pipe in its entirety in the first half of 2020… It ruptured a little bit sooner than we expected”. Vancouver must have their own version of The Pipe Whisperer if they can predict bursts down to the calendar month!

The city engineers in Vancouver get plenty of things right too. From the WSP office window you can just make out the Capilano River Valley where the region gets its water from. This site also doubles as a beautiful public venue that regularly gets used for weddings.

The Capilano Reservoir (and Cleveland Dam) is an example of amazing foresight shown by Vancouver’s founders. The entire watershed upstream of the dam is a protected area with no public access at all. Photo ID swipe cards are needed before you can even think about approaching the water supply utility buildings at the dam.

This historic protection is one of the reasons Vancouver has been able to expand over the years without running into water availability issues. Two more reasons are the Seymour and Coquitlam reservoirs, developed 100 years ago with the same stringent watershed protection. The three beautifully protected catchments provide a vivid lesson for communities wanting to secure a long future of sustainable growth.

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