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Water Today Title May 27, 2024

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Since 2003, water in the Grande Prairie region water has been operated by Aquatera, a municipally controlled corporation .

WT Interview with Lora Brenan, Chief Operating Officer, Aquatera

WT: I have Lora Brenan, she’s Aquatera’s chief operating officer in the City of Grande Prairie, Alberta. Thanks for doing this.

Lora Brenan: You’re welcome, glad to be here.

WT: I think the first question should be how many people does your drinking water plant serve?

Brenan: Just around 70,000 people in four communities. We service the City of Grande Prairie, the County of Grande Prairie, and two smaller towns, Sexsmith and Wembley.

WT: Could you tell me what type of water filtration system it is? I’ve learned that cities are not all the same with their water plants. Can you tell me a little bit about yours and what might make it unique?

Brenan: It’s probably not that unique, it’s a pretty conventional water treatment plant. It has coagulation, flocculation with filtration, and dual media rapid sand filtration. We’re in Alberta, and our regulator recently changed some regulations around disinfection, so we use chlorine on the front end and UV on the back end. So, that might be one new thing compared to some other locations, is the UV disinfection.

WT: Can you tell the viewers a little bit about your corporate structure, who owns Aquatera and how does all that work?

Brenan: We are a municipally controlled corporation. We were set up in 2003, so we are almost at our 20-year anniversary. The organization has four shareholders, the same groups as we service, so, the City of Grande Prairie, the County of Grande Prairie, and the towns of Sexsmith and Wembley, our owners and shareholders. It’s a bit unique, there’s one other company similar to us in Alberta that is set up this way which is EPCOR for water. I guess another company that is similar is ENMAX, they provide electricity to the City of Calgary.

WT: In Ontario some of the cities and towns that use a corporation to produce their drinking water, there seems to be a little bit of push back from the public about a city hiring a contractor or a corporation to do their water filtration. Is there a similar situation there where you might have a group, city folks, or the voting base that are not comfortable with a private corporation running their water filtration?

Brenan: We haven’t really come across that concern; you know there’s always a few customers here and there who may have certain complaints. No one ever likes their rates, but we work really closely with the municipalities to make sure that we can keep the rates in line with what the expectations are. For sure these days we're seeing a lot of pressure around the rates and just with inflation and everything. People have quite a big concern about how utility corporations are dealing with rate hikes, so we work closely with the municipalities to keep (rates) under control. This helps from a political perspective. Because we are owned by those (municipalities) it’s a little different than if we were a private company coming in to run the local water treatment. I think that doesn’t sit as well with the citizens or the residents, because they feel like they have no control over that. With this situation, we definitely are tightly tied to the political groups, with influence on our rate setting.

WT: I read a press release, I believe it was from 2016, that the province of Alberta invested 12 million dollars in Grande Prairie. Did Aquatera get any of that 12 million?

Brenan: Yeah, so that was probably in around that time we did some work on the water treatment plant, so that would have been funding that was directed. So, what can happen is the municipalities can apply for the funding for water and wastewater projects. So, since they own Aquatera they can direct that money to us. Within Alberta, that (provincial funding) only actually applies to municipalities that are smaller than 40,000 people. So, any provincial funding that comes to Aquatera through our shareholders would come from the Towns of Sexsmith and Wembley, and the County. The City of Grande Prairie is too large to actually qualify for those funding rights.

WT: I was looking through our own research, and I didn’t see any boil water advisories issued. Have there been any boil water advisories issued in the last couple of years? Is everything okay with the water plant including the pipes to the houses?

Brenan: Yes, so far so good. We’ve not had a boil order in the time Aquatera has been established. Possibly before it came into existence that may have happened. I think there was a time we had a fairly large water break when it was run by the city, that’s not to say that was the city’s fault but that would have been pressure in the system, and they would have had to disinfect the entire system. We haven’t had any in the time that Aquatera has been running the water system for the city, County and Towns. I guess knock on wood that wouldn’t happen. On the other side of it in terms of things people would be concerned about would be lead. We’ve done all of our testings and one thing Grande Prairie does have going for it is that it is a fairly new city, so a lot of the piping was probably installed after lead became a real issue. So, we’re fortunate to have no main lines or service connections to people’s homes that have lead in them. That’s not to say there isn’t lead on the service connection after the house, or into the house but from what we’ve been able to tell from our testing we don’t have any lead to deal with.

WT: Just a follow-up question to that, what’s the percentage of pipes in Grande Prairie that do have lead, do you have any idea?

Brenan: To our knowledge, we don’t have any.

WT: Okay, so to your knowledge there is no lead in the piping system from the plant to the home?

Brenan: Correct.

WT: Well that’s very good! One of my favorite questions is asking the water pros like yourself, how much is a litre of water in your town?

Brenan: I think it's about a dollar, but I actually will need to look that one up.

WT: Some cities are actively advertising, campaigning against bottled water companies, saying “look our city has perfect water, you don’t have to buy water”, does your organization do anything like that?

Brenan: We don’t actively do it, usually it comes when people are complaining. We will get some complaints where people have been approached by the water sellers saying the water isn’t good and they shouldn’t drink it, and those times we will go out with a new campaign, and say, you know “You are very fortunate to live where you live, the water is probably some of the highest quality drinking water you can get in the world.” We’re really close to the headwaters for the Wapiti River, (our source water) so there’s really nothing upstream of us. We are not like some locations where there are five cities upriver, or in the east where this is an issue as well, where you are treating water coming from other cities.

WT: Your corporation sells bulk water to people from outside your service area. I noticed information out there that says the charge on your credit card when you buy bulk water says “Soda-Snack”, is this true?

Brenan: Soda-Snack? I can’t imagine why that would be the case. I will look into it for you.

WT: Many cities, especially those we cover, have issues with wastewater plants or water filtration plants, there is usually something around climate change, having something to do with nature’s effects on these water plants. Are you doing any adapting for climate change, are you aware of any upcoming situations that you might face, drought or flooding?

Brenan: We have had issues with flooding on the Wapiti River, our source water, (it is) a tributary to the Peace River. Northern Alberta is fortunate, we have lots of rivers, and quite a bit of water. Wapiti River is one that is either close to, or fully allocated, so there is concern from Alberta Environment that too much water is being taken out, so they have limited additional licenses for Wapiti, limiting the expansion of further take-off from Wapiti.

I think there is probably some concern that we have, first around flooding. Often times what happens in Alberta is spring runoff, there can be quite a bit of water, and with flooding events, we may get high turbidity. We have settling ponds to get the turbidity out, we have expanded those ponds to deal with the flooding risk. The other side of it is, because it is a highly allocated river, there is the risk we could get into a drought situation as well. Do we have enough water in the river to provide for the population? As we go forward, the expansion of those siltation ponds is going to be quite helpful, but we will also start looking at additional river sources. Fortunately, there are lots of rivers in the area, the Smoky River is very close, Peace River is relatively close. So we may look at opportunities to work with other municipalities to try and source water.

WT: Have those discussions already begun, or are folks just starting to think it over?

Brenan: They are sort of beginning, work taking place in Greenview County around an industrial area called Greenview Industrial Gateway, they are going to be taking water off the Smoky River, providing water for that area, and using that water as our secondary source.

WT: What is one thing that could be improved in your water plant, in terms of cyber security? Have you looked at this, and had security people in to advise you on how to make it more secure?

Brenan: Yes, it's always an issue. I previously worked in the electrical industry, a lot of effort in cyber security. It’s a constant battle, always on our toes looking for the next thing that could be coming our way. It’s not something we do once a year, our IT department needs to be on it all the time.

 The thing I would improve is actually resourcing. I think the industry as a whole would benefit from getting into schools and talking to kids about becoming water treatment plant operators or distribution and collection operators. I think we are probably going into a future of a shortage of resources, we can deal with some of that with automation, but I think it’s a really good opportunity for young people coming out of school, and we need them. It’s a good job, a good career.

WT: If young people coming out of school want to have a chat with you, is that something they can do?

Brenan: Absolutely.

WT: Well that is great. Thanks for doing this, have a good day.