Metro Vancouver’s annual utility fees are projected to climb 65% over the next half-decade to almost $1,000 annually by 2026, a massive spike as the region races to replace costly and aging infrastructure.
In 2021, a household paid roughly $574 to the regional body, a collection of 21 municipalities, Electoral Area A at UBC and the Tsawwassen First Nation. In return, Metro provides most of the local authorities with clean tap water, a sewage network, regional parks and a system to recycle and process garbage.
Next year, the 2022 proposed budget is expected to go up $21 to $595.
But by 2026, that yearly rate is expected to climb to $952, a $378 increase from today, according to a Metro Vancouver 2022 capital budget and 2022-2026 capital plan revealed last week.
“There will be significant increases over the next number of years. Period,” Metro Commissioner Jerry Dobrovolny told the finance and intergovernment committee.
Increased fees are largely due to the rising costs of several major infrastructure projects all underway at the same time, and all designed to withstand the impacts of a changing climate and growing population.
Metro’s 2022 budget will climb to a little over $1 billion, up from about $948 million this year and 1% higher than previously forecast. Metro Vancouver’s board approves budgets on a yearly basis. That means the proposed five-year spending plan remains a projection.
Dobrovolny called the increased spending substantial. He added that building three brand new sewage treatment plants at the same time was not an ideal situation, but a necessary path forward.
“The timing is what it is,” he said.
The rise in fees must be approved by Metro Vancouver's members on an annual basis. Approval of the 2022 budget is slated for next week.
Where is the money going?
Treating sewage doesn’t come cheap.
In Richmond, a new wastewater treatment plant on Iona Island has seen its projected costs soar to $10.4 billion over its two-decade construction timeline.
The facility, which includes improved treatment, seismic upgrades, climate change resiliency and ecological restoration projects, will treat effluence from parts of Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby, UBC and the University Endowment Lands. Metro Vancouver is currently seeking feedback on the project from the public.
Meanwhile, in Langley, the regional body has plans to expand the Northwest Langley Wastewater Treatment Plant to serve a growing population and adapt to pressures from flooding. When completed in 2026, it’s expected to serve 230,000 people from as far away as Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows. That’s up from the 30,000 the plant serves now.
Things can quickly go wrong, as was seen on the North Shore in recent weeks, when work ground to a halt on a $1-billion sewage plant under construction in North Vancouver.
Two weeks after work stopped “without notice,” Metro Vancouver said it informed the contractor, Acciona Wastewater Solutions, it was ending the contract on Oct. 15, following a closed-door vote.
“Acciona has underperformed and consistently failed to meet its contractual obligations, which include delivering the project on time and within budget,” Dobrovolny wrote in a statement last week. “This project is already two and a half years behind schedule, and they’ve informed us that they require an additional two years.”
Dobrovolny said in an interview with Glacier Media that Acciona had asked for an increase in the budget for the treatment plant “which would almost double the original contract price" from $525 million to over $1 billion for the wastewater treatment plant alone.
"We had major concerns, as do many others, about the financial impact of where we were headed with Acciona," said Dobrovolny. "And we can't allow a situation where they just keep coming back for more."
In response, the company said it had performed roughly $100 million in contracted work without payment and that the project had been “fraught with unforeseen challenges from the outset.”
Acciona was supposed to have finished the project by the end of 2023, four years past its initial opening date. It's not clear when a new contractor will step in to the project, or when it will ultimately be finished. But Dobrovolny acknowledged it will mean "the schedule and the cost are longer and higher than what we anticipated."
Water spending is next
Sewage plants are far from the only major capital expenditure Metro Vancouver has planned in the coming decades.
Last week, Metro Vancouver’s finance and intergovernment committee approved a nearly $288-million contract to Traylor-Aecon General Partnership — the same contractor that did work on the Second Narrows Tunnel — to drill a 2.3-kilometre-long water tunnel under the Fraser River.
The Annacis Water Supply Tunnel project will connect municipalities to the south with three mountain reservoirs and ensure long-term access to drinking water for decades to come.
On the north side of the Fraser River, the new 2.3-km pipe will emerge on the southeast shore of New Westminster; to the south, the tunnel shaft will see daylight near the Fraser Surrey Docks.
The tunnel is part of the region’s plan to boost drinking water capacity and meet future demand, all while being able to withstand a major earthquake and the scouring effects of the river.
The Annacis tunnel is just one piece of a bigger puzzle to ensure Metro Vancouver residents have clean water. It will join a network of 500 kilometres of transmission pipes that funnel water from the Seymour, Capilano and Coquitlam reservoirs across the region.
Long-term plans revolve around an up to $7.6 billion project to tap Coquitlam Reservoir’s deepwater potential before demand outstrips supply.
Metro Vancouver has banked more than half the region’s future water supply on this reservoir. By the mid-2030s, the regional body plans to plunge a new tower even deeper into the lake, more than doubling the amount of water it can draw by mid-century.
Any delay of the project could affect water supply for the entire Metro region. Phase 2 of the project isn't expected to be finished until the end of the 2030s, the same point a confluence of population growth and drier summers brought on by climate change is expected to lead to seasonal shortfalls.
With files from Jane Seyd and Kirsten Clarke