Okotoks to seek water from other sources to accommodate growth
Town shifts gears after lifting population cap
By Eva Ferguson, Calgary Herald
CALGARY — The Town of Okotoks will have to be even more aggressive in its pursuit of finding more water for residents now that a long-term cap on population growth has been lifted.
After purchasing three new water licences along the Sheep River over the past two years, the latest for as much as $1 million, the town can supply water to all of its 25,000 residents.
But Okotoks Mayor Bill Robertson hopes to purchase even more licences in an effort to provide water supply to as many as 60,000 residents in the future.
The burgeoning town just south of Calgary has for years fought to stay small under a 30,000-resident population cap enacted in 1998. But town council voted this week to lift the ban in frustration over development growth that continues to go up haphazardly around the town’s borders.
“Our backs are against the wall,” Robertson said.
“We keep seeing the M.D. of Foothills allowing all of this intense growth on our doorstep, but we’re not getting any of those revenues.”
Robertson and others who voted five to two in favour of eliminating the cap argue if they allow growth within their town’s borders at least they can control it and benefit from those revenues.
Coun. Matt Rockley agreed: “If we can plan the development, we can ensure it is more compact, it uses less land . . . and it can be serviced with transit, and with water.”
Historically, the town’s challenge has been accessing water services from the surrounding Sheep River, its nearest and only existing water resource.
In 2006, the province issued a final moratorium on allowing any new water licences from the South Saskatchewan River basin, which feeds into the Sheep.
But the Town of Okotoks has been able to buy up existing licences from private landowners or oil companies who have used the water for underground extraction.
Another option might be to build a dam upstream along the Sheep River, collect spring run off in a separate reservoir and use that for Okotoks’ needs.
The town is also looking to enact policies and guidelines that would make it easier for residents to conserve water on their own property, reducing their own rates and keeping existing supplies up.
Homes could be refitted to store dish water, rain water and other light waste waters in a holding tank to use for watering their property or even flushing toilets. Residents are already being asked to conserve water through a bylaw that only allows outdoor watering two days a week.
Robertson added how much Okotoks ends up paying for water will also depend on future weather conditions and how dry farmland in southern Alberta will be in future years.
As global warming becomes more of an issue, and depending how severe future droughts are, water markets can become very volatile in the near future, the mayor said.
“It just is what it is,” Robertson said. “We’ve got all these challenges, and we’ll have to deal with them head on.”
While other towns like Airdrie, Chestermere and Strathmore all benefit from water service from the City of Calgary, Robertson fears building a pipeline and paying for water from the big city might be too expensive.
“Going to the city is one of our options, but we’re not really looking at it right now,” he said.
But Paul Fesko, manager of strategic services for the City of Calgary’s water resources, said pumping city water into Okotoks is completely feasible.
He explained the Town of Okotoks would have to fund construction of a pipeline which could be built over two years, and then any increased costs would be built into the town’s water rates.
Fesko couldn’t say whether those increased costs would be more or less than having to keep purchasing water licences on the Sheep River.
“It’s all about what is the cheapest way to get a glass of water on the table in Okotoks,” he said.
Survey of Okotoks residents reveals acceptance of growth as inevitable
OKOTOKS — Already feeling the strain on their collective waistband, more than three-quarters of Okotoks residents believe further growth of the town is inevitable despite a cap on growth, a new Ipsos Reid survey reveals.
The survey results offer insight to town councillors as they prepare to make a decision in the more than decade-long debate over how to manage development in the bedroom community just south of Calgary.
“Nobody is really denying that growth is going to happen,” Jamie Duncan, vice-president of Ipsos Reid, told the Herald on Monday. “What they’re looking for is clear direction on how it’s going to happen and what role the town is actually going to take in terms of managing that.”
Over the past five years, Okotoks has seen growth of 42.9 per cent, from a population of 17,150 in 2006 to 24,511 last year, according to 2011 census data.
In 1998 the town placed a 30,000 cap on its population. The Sheep River, the community’s water source, can only serve a maximum of 32,000.
On Sept. 24, town council will vote on whether to keep the cap or lift it and instead bid to annex enough land outside the town’s existing boundary to accommodate growth for the next 30 years. Lifting the cap will require the town to explore outside water options, including connecting to a regional water pipeline from Calgary.
The vote, originally planned for June 25, was postponed to allow councillors more time to consider their decision.
In late April the town commissioned the Ipsos survey, in paper and online, the results of which were discussed during Monday’s council meeting.
Of the survey respondents, 74 per cent are concerned about population growth. Of those, 33 per cent are “very concerned” and 41 per cent are “somewhat concerned” about growth.
Eighty-five per cent of survey respondents are concerned about the town’s water supply.
Driving many residents’ trepidation are concerns that Okotoks will lose its “small town feel,” a sentiment shared by resident Mary Ellen Goslin, who said she doesn’t want to see the population cap lifted.
“I like the small town atmosphere,” said Goslin, who has lived in Okotoks for six years. “You get to know people. . . . That’s why I live here, and not in Calgary.”
Of the survey respondents, 86 per cent say it’s important the town maintain its close-knit community atmosphere, including Monika McLachlan, owner of the Okotoks Candy Shoppe.
McLachlan said the small town appeal is what draws customers to her store.
“It’s a destination place, not just a bedroom community for Calgary,” she said.
Rather than have respondents choose future growth options, the survey gauged residents’ feelings about the quality of life, rate of growth, concerns about growth and confidence in town council to make the right decision.
“It certainly wasn’t a plebiscite question,” said Coun. Matt Rockley, who put forth the motion in March for the town to vote on the issue. “It wasn’t intended that this survey will make the decision for us. It was intended that we would receive information to help us determine . . . the best way forward.”
Sixty-six per cent of respondents are confident town councillors will make the best decision for the community.
“To me, that’s a great indication that people feel that council will make the right decision,” said Rockley. “They aren’t looking for a plebiscite to decide this issue.
Coun. Florence Christophers said council now needs to digest the survey results and decide on the best course of action.
“We have three months to get our game on,” Christophers said. “It’s our job. It’s our responsibility.”
Mayor Bill Robertson agreed. Debate on the population cap has been ongoing for years, and the vote has been postponed numerous times.
“I would be very disappointed if we didn’t make a decision on Sept. 24,” he told council.