Relationship between City of Winnipeg, new premier tested by latest sewage-treatment dispute

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson’s pledge to improve her government’s relationship with Winnipeg city hall is being tested over a new city-provincial sewage treatment dispute.

Two weekends ago, the new premier met with Mayor Brian Bowman at a coffee shop in Tuxedo. The two posed for a selfie, which was posted on Twitter as a testament to a thawing of a city-provincial relationship that was severely strained during the final years of Brian Pallister’s time in the premier’s office.

Bowman said the meeting was social.

“That discussion was really one to congratulate her on her new role — have a social opportunity just to talk about the tone and the approach that we’re going to be taking towards working with each other,” he said Wednesday during a break in a day-long executive policy committee meeting.

“It was really positive.”

Hours later, the mayor told his EPC colleagues time is running out to strike a city-provincial deal for funding the second component of multibillion-dollar upgrades to the North End Water Pollution Control Centre, the largest of Winnipeg’s three sewage plants.

That second phase involves the construction of a $552-million facility to process biosolids, the sludgy byproduct left behind from the initial treatment of solid human waste.

According to a report from Winnipeg’s water and waste department presented to EPC, the city and province have failed to agree on a construction model for the biosolids facility.

That failure means the city is in danger of missing a Dec. 31 deadline to request federal funding for the project.

“Failure to access this grant funding of $368 million — or two-thirds of the $552 million project — would have significant environmental, customer and economic impacts,” including an an increase in rates for residents, water and waste director Moira Geer writes in the report.

If the city is forced to go it alone, she wrote, the North End upgrades would be delayed to the point where the city would be late in obtaining an environmental licence to operate the plant and would soon run out of sewage-treatment capacity. 

“No significant industrial growth would happen in the next five to nine years,” Geer wrote.

Bowman told the committee that would threaten the city’s economic growth and harm the province, by extension.

The crux of the dispute is that the province wanted the city to enlist a private partner to design, fund, build, operate and maintain the biosolids facility.

The city refused to consider the latter two components, opting to maintain control over its operations and maintenance.

Manitoba Central Services — the provincial department responsible for capital funding agreements and partnerships — said in a statement that wasn’t good enough.

“The province feels that the city has not done enough due diligence outside of investigating one, more narrow, procurement methodology,” a spokesperson for the provincial department said.

City council water and waste chair Brian Mayes (St. Vital) told EPC he believes there is time for the two levels of government to compromise.

The biosolids facility is part of $1.8-billion worth of upgrades planned or underway at the North End sewage treatment plant. The provincial Clean Environment Commission originally ordered up the upgrades in 2003.

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