I am going into my eighth year on council, and as difficult as the recovery, from the 2011 Wildfire, was my most frustrating issue to deal with has been water meters. We have invested close to half a million dollars in this project and at this point, I have to confess we are going backwards. Last night council voted on some changes that will come into place effective March 1, but will not show up until you receive your March Utility Bill in April, and it will have a direct effect on every residential tax payer's utility bill.
So read on and I'll let you know how we got here and what the future looks like.
First off some history. Over the last decade the Provincial government has been pushing municipalities to put forth water conservation measures. So much so, many of our grants are conditional to demonstrating we have something in practice. As a result council decided a number of years ago to install water meters with all accounts to help promote water conservation and bill for what is used (Users who use more water would pay more, compared to conservationists that would benefit from reduced consumption). We evaluated companies and costs and started installing meters.
That project completed itself about 18 months ago, and through a shared cost between the town and users we installed approximately $500,000 worth of meters. It is a sealed unit with an internal battery that is supposed to last 20 years. It mounts easily and provides some great data when it works.
Fast forward to about early last year, and we began noticing issues with some meters. For those accounts with water meter issues, we began estimating water usage which has been frustrating for both the tax payers as well as our staff.
In the later part of 2017 we approached the meter supplier, in Edmonton, we bought the meters through and they started stonewalling our inquiries. After getting nowhere with the company we reached out to the actual manufacturer of the meters and began getting somewhere to rectify this issue.
They confess there is an issue with the battery life and we have two options. One, replace them all with an even "better" water meter at a cost of $650,000, or they will warranty all the meters we have installed with new, and better, batteries. Because the water meters are sealed units we have to wait for new ones, uninstall them ourselves and then send back old ones.
With each passing month, more meters begin to fail, and right now we are close to 1000 water meters that have failed. The our last shipment of 50 meters delivered from the manufacturer came before Christmas. Another shipment of 500 was expected already, but the delivery date keeps changing.
Slave Lake isn't the only municipality having issues with their water meters, hundreds of other municipalities across North America all competing for the same meters.
So now what? In the interim council is moving back to our previous method of water billing where we all paid the same. Essentially this is how we used to do it and as a result people that use a lot of water will see a reduction and people that conserve will see an increase as we will spread the usage out equally among all taxpayers.
This is not ideal, but due the fact that water consumption changes seasonally, families, renters, and situations change; so it's difficult to keep estimating and really isn't fair or effective.
We also don't have great historical data for about half of the utility user in town, which would result in a estimation nightmare.
This change will be for residential only. Our commercial users have a large variation of usage between users so will continue with actual billing for those.
We hope this is an interim fix. For the immediate we will wait for more meters and see if the manufacturer is able to deal with the incredible demand. As we have received some warrantied meters and they have been installed we have to wait and see if the new batteries are any better.
Additionally we will be looking to other companies and evaluating their product as well. We are not going to jump into something quickly. To say council is disappointed is an understatement, and we can understand the frustration this will cause to our residents.
We will keep you informed as we work towards a long term solution, but effective March 1st we will revert back to uniform billing for residents.