Legally, Tom Watson has to hook up to South St. Andrews’ new wastewater system. Personally, he says he’s against it.
Standing at 6’ 3”, Watson can be an imposing figure. He’s called St. Andrews home for most of his life. He lives there now with his wife, Darcie, in a new home the couple built in 2009.
At the time, it was common for St. Andrews lots to have septic fields because there was no sewer system to hook up to. That’s changed — and Watson’s not happy.
His property, along with roughly 1,800 others, in South St. Andrews will have to hook up to a new sewer system that’s going to cost affected homeowners tens of thousands of dollars. It’s a system many residents are still confused about.
“I didn’t want to go through the expense of putting in a septic field if I knew for certain [a] sewer system was coming,” Watson said.
He said he called the RM of St. Andrews’ office every three months for two years. Each time, he asked about a sewer potentially being built.
“The answer was ‘I don’t know, we don’t know,’” Watson said.
His last phone call with the municipality was in 2009, when he says he was told a sewer project might not happen. Watson set about installing a septic field to the tune of $42,000.
Now, he’ll have to pay over $10,000 to hook up to a system he doesn’t need. With some residents expecting to spend more than $25,000, Watson said he considers himself one of the lucky ones.
A New System
South St. Andrews is now split into two construction phases: Phase 1 and Phase 2. Each encompasses around 900 properties. Both will be forced to hook up to a large pipe, called a forcemain, that will send wastewater down Highway 9, through West St. Paul, to Winnipeg’s North End Sewage Treatment Plant.
Many of the affected homeowners don’t want the system. Some think the price they’ll have to pay has skyrocketed; many thought they’d pay a $7,390 tax. Learning about additional costs, like hooking up to the system, has led some residents to believe they’ll pay up to $25,000 — or more.
Some St. Andrews homeowners say a lack of dialogue between local politicians and residents has created confusion and mistrust.
“I feel angry, and I think that would be a substantial understatement,” Watson said.
The sewer system costs roughly $30 million to build. Phase 1’s construction is scheduled to be finished in July, followed by Phase 2 wrapping up in October.
“There’s going to be a great number of people that aren’t going to be able to afford those on-site services,” Watson said.
He believes seniors and young couples are the ones who’ll have the hardest time paying their share of the project.
What’s Up, St. Andrews?
Watson heard rumblings in town about a sewer system coming to St. Andrews in 2011 or 2012 — after he’d been told in 2009 it might not happen.
It wasn’t until May 26, 2016, that Watson attended the first public hearing about a bylaw regarding the wastewater project.
Around 350 people squished into Lockport School’s gym to hear politicians describe the plan.
Officials explained: Some South St. Andrews homeowners would be grouped into a Local Improvement District (LID) because their properties would hook up to the sewer system in the future. People living there would pay a one-time LID tax of $7,390 to help pay for the project.
The municipality already had $15.75 million in grant funding for the system.
One hundred and sixty-seven people objected — 31 before the hearing, and 136 during.
People asked questions about the costs, what type of system they were getting, why it was needed. Nobody reported trouble with their septic fields.
“The reason why I’m really angry is this was sold… on protecting the groundwater and doing what’s best for residents, but I don’t think it was about that at all,” Watson said. “I think the sewage system was all about development opportunities.”
Watson said from where he sat, council had already made up their minds — the project would go through.
“I don’t think they ever looked for residents’ input,” Watson said. “They did it in isolation.”
Watson kept attending the project’s open houses. He said he asked questions but couldn’t get simple answers. He’d leave more confused than when he entered.
“When I would ask different councillors the same question, I’d get different responses,” he said.
At one open house, Watson said he asked several members of St. Andrews council whether people would be charged a flat rate to hook up, or if they’d be charged depending on how big their front yard was.
“Some councillors said it would be by the lot, some of them said it was going to be by frontage, and some of them said they hadn’t made up their mind yet, all at the same open house,” Watson said.
The frontage idea concerned him. If that were to become reality, people would pay a certain amount per foot in front of their home to connect to the system. Lots with a septic tank farther from the road would pay more.
A lot in St. Andrews must have at least 15 m of frontage, according to Claudette Griffin, a real estate agent in the Interlake. But the actual size varies — homeowners may have their houses much farther from the road.
Watson also heard there were no signed legal documents saying the wastewater project was happening.
“As a project manager, typically when you do things like this, you need some sort of legal agreement,” Watson said.
When plans for Phase 2 began to roll out, Watson took action.
“I was concerned mainly about the cost to the residents,” he said.
In May 2017, Watson created a blog, Whats Up St. Andrews, to advocate for the cancellation of the wastewater system. He urged residents to contact provincial politicians about stopping the project.
He created signs for his blog and stuck them to all the mailboxes in the proposed Phase 2 area.
“As soon as I put the signs up, [the views] started to spike,” Watson said.
Watson researched and updated the blog until November of 2017. He alerted people to the sewage system’s costs and the absence of a legal agreement for the project.
He argued for St. Andrews wastewater to go to Selkirk, which is geographically closer, and listed concerns about Winnipeg’s North End sewage plant releasing raw sewage into the Red River.
The Accountants’ Anger
Glen and Karen McKenzie, St. Andrews residents, followed the drama on Watson’s blog in 2017.
The McKenzies are retired chartered accountants in their 50s. They’ve been keeping track of the project.
“We were having no problems with our septic field,” Karen said. “We don’t know of anybody else who was having a problem.”
The couple has lived in St. Andrews for 26 years. Their home is part of Phase 1, and it’s in the Red River Corridor, a district the provincial government made in 2009. The province passed legislation saying nobody in the district could build a new septic field or repair a broken one.
The government made the Red River Corridor and its new regulations to prevent sewage leakages from entering groundwater. Wastewater can contaminate ground water — and eventually lakes and drinking water — by adding damaging elements like phosphorus and nitrogen. Too much phosphorus, for example, can cause algae growth.
The Red River Corridor covers sections of the municipalities of St. Andrews, West St. Paul, St. Clements, and East St. Paul.
“People joke around here that people east of the railroad obviously have lots of problems with septic systems, but for some reason people immediately west of the railroad have no problem with their systems,” Karen said, referencing a railway along the Red River Corridor’s border.
“And yet the soil is all the same,” Glen said.
Like Tom Watson, the McKenzies attended open houses for the wastewater project. They challenged local politicians and asked questions.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense for conservation to actually enforce those rules and make those people who have faulty fields pay $30,000 to fix their fields rather than having all 2,000 people make that kind of cash payment?” Glen said.
Both husband and wife presented cases to the Manitoba Municipal Board outlining their concerns with the project. They echoed Tom Watson, mentioning a lack of formal legal agreements between St. Andrews, West St. Paul and Winnipeg; a lack of dialogue between council and residents; and the cost of the project.
They also questioned why their wastewater wasn’t going to Selkirk’s treatment plant — it’s closer and less expensive in the long run, they argued.
“We were very upset with the municipality that they were minimizing [the costs], all those costs that were borne by the homeowner alone,” Glen said.
The couple guesses they’ll spend between $20,000 and $25,000 hooking up to the sewer system.
“The majority probably still believe it’s only $7,390,” Glen said.
“It’s going to be a big surprise to people,” Karen added.
Some neighbours don’t have septic tanks and pumps, so hooking up will be even more expensive, they said. Sewage pumps on The Home Depot’s website range from $200 to $400. Sewage tanks range from $2,000 to $6,000 on Agwerks’ website.
“There’s a lot of seniors out here [whose] only option is going to be to sell,” Glen said.
The Costs for Residents
The cost of the wastewater system will vary between households.
Homeowners were originally expected to pay for a water meter and its installation, but the RM is now covering the cost.
That doesn’t make a difference to Karen — she has no interest in paying the rest.
“As long as we have a working septic field, we will wait until the very last moment that we’re forced to hook up,” she said.
The McKenzies believe the wastewater project is development-driven. They believe that by having a sewer system, future lots in St. Andrews can be smaller. So, developers can build more properties in South St. Andrews, and the RM can have a larger tax base.
“My take on this sewer system is that yes, it can be a benefit to future residents of the municipality,” Glen said. “People that are in homes built prior to 2009, it’s questionable if it’s of any benefit at all.”
The project is almost finished, and still, there are no official legal agreements with other municipalities, according to Randy Borsa, the project’s manager.
“We would think you’d have those kinds of agreements all signed and in place before you started putting pipe in the ground,” Glen said.
‘It’s an Urgent Problem’
It’s hard to give a definitive date of when politicians started looking into a wastewater system for St. Andrews, but it was well over a decade ago.
At a Manitoba Municipal Board hearing in 2016, former St. Andrews reeve Don Forfar said the municipality began looking at wastewater treatment options in the late ‘90s.
Forfar was reeve of St. Andrews from 1998 to 2014.
“Especially in the spring or a wet fall, you would smell sewer,” Forfar said in an interview.
Moving away from septic fields was a priority — after all, septic field leakages damage ground water and Lake Winnipeg, Forfar said.
“Why do we have to deal with it? Because it’s an urgent problem,” he said. “It’s not a little problem. It’s a huge problem.”
However, residents like Watson and the McKenzies say St. Andrews septic fields have never been tested for leakages.
Forfar said he toyed with several ideas in the project’s early planning stages.
He considered partnering with the RM of Rockwood. He tried for a regional system with Selkirk and St. Clements.
“We looked at every option,” Forfar said. “We tried over and over to connect to Selkirk.”
At the time, Selkirk’s council wasn’t interested in partnering, Forfar said.
So, St. Andrews and West St. Paul formed a partnership called the Red River West Wastewater Co-Operative Inc. with the intention of building a sewage treatment plant.
That same year, the province enacted new environmental legislation decreeing residents of the Red River Corridor were forbidden to either put in a new septic field or modify an existing one.
The Onsite Wastewater Management Systems Regulation, part of The Environment Act, says people who live by a wastewater collection system must hook up within five years if they aren’t already hooked up to a different system.
A Deal Done in Darkness
On May 1, 2009, the federal government, through its Building Canada Fund (BCF), announced it would give $8 million to the creation of a wastewater facility for St. Andrews and West St. Paul. Both municipalities would get $4 million. Each RM was expected to shell out $2 million toward the project.
But everything changed in 2011. Winnipeg began allowing border communities to hook up to the city’s waste and water services.
Winnipeg proposed that West St. Paul send its wastewater to the city, and West St. Paul took the deal. It was cheaper for the municipality, according to a 2016 memorandum of understanding between West St. Paul and St. Andrews.
The co-operative deal between the two groups was dead.
“We lost our prime partner,” Forfar said.
He said his council considered building their own plant, but it was too costly. Selkirk still wasn’t interested in partnering. A treatment plant with Stony Mountain, which is around 40 km away from St. Andrews, was too expensive.
But the grant funding was still there if St. Andrews sent its wastewater to Winnipeg.
“At the end of the day, it appeared to be — and proved to be — the best option was to connect with the City of Winnipeg,” Forfar said.
St. Andrews would also get funding from the water services board.
On Aug. 14, 2012, St. Andrews passed a resolution to work with West St. Paul on the wastewater project. West St. Paul had passed its own resolution weeks earlier.
It wasn’t until nearly a year later St. Andrews and West St. Paul signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) saying they’d work together on the project.
A MOU is a formal document outlining an agreement, but it isn’t legally binding. Usually, the parties involved plan on making a contract, according to Rodrigues Paiva LLP.
The two RMs said they would enter into separate service sharing agreements with Winnipeg.
St. Andrews contributed money to the oversizing of the main line running through West St. Paul to Winnipeg. The larger size would fit St. Andrews’ wastewater through the pipe.
However, St. Andrews residents hadn’t been made aware of the deal. West St. Paul had held several open houses about the new system, but St. Andrews had not.
Forfar said he made a MOU with Winnipeg.
“The details would get specific after that, and that would be the next council,” Forfar said. “I don’t know what that agreement looks like.”
He said his agreement with Winnipeg indicated the two municipalities would work together.
But, a MOU between Winnipeg and St. Andrews regarding the wastewater project does not exist, according to a letter from the RM of St. Andrews office obtained by a freedom of information request.
“All I know is I spent 16 years working on this, and it was a long, frustrating process,” Forfar said. “When I left office, I was quite happy. I had the money, I had the deal, I’d had an agreement with Winnipeg — I had everything lined up. I thought after 16 years I’d finally done it.”
Forfar didn’t run for office in the 2014 municipal election. George Pike took over as mayor.
Pipes in the Ground?
In January of 2016, St. Andrews council began awarding tenders for the project. They set up tenders for the force main from St. Andrews to West St. Paul and for a lift station on River Road.
Council held a bylaw hearing for Phase 1 at Lockport School on May 26, 2016.
“We wanted the public input,” Pike said.
The McKenzies said they didn’t think St. Andrews council was open to the public’s opinion at the hearing. One-hundred and sixty-seven people objected, but the plans were already in place. Tenders were already awarded.
“It was decided before we ever had a say,” Karen said.
Tom Watson also said he believes residents weren’t heard at the meeting.
St. Andrews and West St. Paul councils signed an MOU on July 7, 2016. Both parties would own 50 per cent of the sewer system, and they would share operation and maintenance costs.
“Part of the contract, every year we can open discussions with West St. Paul,” Pike said.
St. Andrews would lose their grant funding if they pulled out of the project.
“We looked at going to Selkirk, by all means, but their plant wasn’t up to date [at the time],” Pike said.
Even so, residents pushed back.
Forty-three people sent objections to the Manitoba Municipal Board before the board’s hearings in October and November of 2016.
The complaints were the same: residents’ septic tanks worked fine, the project was too expensive for people, and the municipality didn’t look at all available options or consider retirees. Winnipeg’s treatment plant already couldn’t take the amount of waste it was getting, taxpayers lamented.
Ultimately, the Manitoba Municipal Board passed the proposed bylaw allowing St. Andrews to borrow money and continue with Phase 1.
“There is nothing to suggest to the board that the Proposed Project is flawed or that another system would be superior,” the board wrote in its final report.
However, if there’d been better communication from council, many objections could’ve been resolved before the hearing, the board wrote.
It also wrote about its trouble understanding St. Andrews politicians’ plans for the project.
“The Board…had to spend a considerable amount of time after the hearing, organizing the materials to arrive at a clear understanding of the Municipality’s submission,” the board wrote.
Homeowners in Phase 2 could go to a public hearing on May 11, 2017. Tom Watson showed up among residents ready to battle against the project.
Later in November, the Manitoba Municipal Board held public hearings at St. Andrews Community Club.
Again, the board heard residents’ complaints. Again, the board said St. Andrews could go forward and borrow millions for the project.
There was still no final, signed agreement with Winnipeg, nor one with West St. Paul. Draft agreements were in the works, according to council meeting minutes from Nov. 14, 2017.
When George Pike finished his time as mayor in 2018, he hadn’t signed an agreement with Winnipeg.
“It went back and forth a few times for corrections and additions,” he said. “The last time I knew where it was was in the lawyers’ hands.”
Pike said he thinks the sewage system is an asset to the municipality.
“Overall, I think it’ll improve the living conditions in St. Andrews,” he said. “The fact is, it’s something that’s needed.”
The system will make homes easier to sell, and there’s room for new properties to hook up, Pike said.
“Our system is built for 6,000 people. At this point, we’re only up to 2,000,” he said.
Pike ran in the 2018 municipal election but lost to Joy Sul, the only councillor to vote against the wastewater system in the previous council.
Aside from Coun. Laurie Hunt, no other council member from 2014 to 2018 was re-elected in the 2018 municipal election.
“People are not opposed to a sewer project — they’re opposed to this sewer project,” Sul said, decrying the lack of transparency.
“You look to others who’ve installed systems. They’ve had brochures, they’ve had meetings,” Sul said. “We’ve had not much information… There’s no clarity.”
When Sul took the reins, her council halted the project and looked at sending St. Andrews’ wastewater to Selkirk.
But most of Phase 1 was already done, and Phase 2’s portion of the force main had also been built. The project was over 80 per cent complete, according to a letter from Jeff Wharton, then minister of municipal relations.
Stantec determined it would cost $11.3 million to make and modify wastewater systems to go to Selkirk, and another $4.7 million to reroute the system.
Furthermore, St. Andrews would likely have its grants pulled. The municipality would have to pay back millions in government funding for the current project.
“Our hands are tied now as a new council,” Sul said.
She said St. Andrews is working with Winnipeg to sign a contract as the wastewater project nears completion.
“In my opinion, it’s all being done backwards,” Sul said. “Anything in business you go into, you have an agreement signed first, not at the end.”
Still Not Having It
Karen and Glen McKenzie said they’re worried their neighbours will be shocked when it’s time to hook up to the sewer.
St. Andrews is still working on final agreements with West St. Paul and Winnipeg. It cannot sign a deal with Winnipeg until it has one saying its wastewater can go through West St. Paul to the city, said project manager Randy Borsa.
Once the project is completed, homeowners will have five years to hook up to the system. They must begin paying the LID tax in the first tax cycle after construction finishes, or they’ll have at least 60 days post-construction to pay the whole $7,390, should they choose to pay the lump sum.
Tom Watson is not having it.
“We’re actually thinking about moving,” Watson said. “And I’m sure there might be others.”