Thrown out with the bathwater

With its water service poised for a bleak future, Abbotsford put forth a PPP solution. The stinging backlash cost the city’s mayor his job.

The website once used to promote a proposed public-private partnership (PPP) in Abbotsford, British Columbia, is now offline. But that’s not the only casualty of the failed PPP: the city’s mayor, a hitherto esteemed public servant, also had the plug pulled on his career.

The November 19 voting down of the Stave Lake Water Project culminated in a barely civil, often downright nasty, run-up to a referendum for what turned out to be a very controversial PPP. Political backbiting in the local press fed a feeling of voter betrayal, evidenced by a larger than average voter turnout – 39 percent compared to a 2011 provincial average of 30 percent. 

And the result was overwhelming: 74 percent voted against the envisioned project, which had an estimated cost of C$280 million (€207 million; $277 million), with C$65 million of that project funding coming from federal government agency PPP Canada.   

Along with nixing the project, the people of Abbotsford ground another axe: incumbent mayor and chief PPP cheerleader George Peary was ousted from city hall. 

Self-serving political posturing against Peary and his pet PPP rang of self-righteous indignation. “We have a lot of smart people in Abbotsford,” chided failed mayoral hopeful Meghan Coughlan in a televised debate, “I am sure we can come up with something [other than privatisation]”. 

The argument for the Stave Lake PPP was simple: current water and wastewater service would be inadequate for meeting consumption demand by 2016. Processing water from Stave Lake, a hydroelectric reservoir, was a solution – best operated under private auspices, argued the mayor. 

But water privatisation has garnered next to no acceptance. Case in point: neighbouring District of Mission, through which the water line from Stave Lake would pass, opposed the plan, causing a municipal schism with Abbotsford that played out on the internet. 

“Even worse,” crowed a Mission-biased YouTube spot. “While they claim the tiered rate system and water metering will help you conserve water, they are secretly hoping you do not”. 

Lynn Perrin of Water War Mission, a Stave Lake opposition group, published a heated plea for anti-exploitation, citing that paean to anti-water privatisation, the movie “FLOW (For the Love of Water)”. 

“Even though I consider myself to be a strong, assertive woman,” she wrote. “I wept at the similarity of what had happened to them and to what was now happening to my community of Abbotsford”.  For your information, FLOW is set in third-world Latin America and Africa.  

Abbotsford manager Frank Pizzuto appealed to reason, penning an open letter pointing out Abbotsford would retain its water license and ownership of Stave Lake. 

“This is not a ‘City Hall’ problem, this is a communitywide issue that will impact us all,” he wrote. 

“Water is our most valuable resource,” is a simpleminded, but nonetheless telling, cliché, and Abbotsford is a lesson as well as an example. Privatising water, unlike parking, is not just a hard sell, but an apparent uphill battle against human instinct. 

As outgoing mayor Peary put it, still reeling from the shock of his dismissal: “I was a champion for the PPP water project and it went down dramatically. It was way, way worse than I thought it would be.” Good luck, infrastructure industry.