No one knows why the water is disappearing in the hamlet of Lottie Lake, Alberta. Since April of this year the community west of St. Paul has been losing water at an increasing rate. In April, Lottie Lake was supplementing its own supply by hauling in one or two trucks per day. By mid-summer it was bringing in some 40 loads per day from St. Paul.
St. Paul County Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Kitz says Lottie Lake typically has to import some water in the summer when seasonal residents double the winter population of 40 lakeside homes, yet the import this year is unprecedented.
The lake is used for both recreation and as a drinking supply. It’s been determined Lottie Lake is not using more water — the meters are working just fine — rather it’s disappearing and St. Paul County administration is struggling to find out why. Lottie Lake does have its own water treatment plant, which generally produces enough water for the community. However, plant staff have told the St. Paul county council that Lottie Lake is going through nearly twice as much water as it produces. So far the trucked-in supply covers the shortfall, but the county is desperate to find out where the water is going.
“We’ve had staff out there all summer trying to locate a leak, and we’ve had staff that have been with us almost 20 years working with the water systems in our municipality, so they’re not unfamiliar with water problems within our hamlet,” says Kitz. “They will tell me over and over again that water takes the path of least resistance and will always come up. So when there’s a water leak it’s very apparent.”
Unable to find the problem, the county hired Canadian Leak Detection Services and Urban Systems from Edmonton. Their crews searched the entire hamlet, but also found nothing wrong. Later this month a dive team will search the hamlet’s two reservoirs for cracks, pinholes; anything to indicate a cause.
County Reeve Steve Upham says, “the water system is the Achilles’ heel… There’s got to be a solution.”
“[What] our engineers have suggested is that replacing the distribution line should correct this problem and take any leaky line — although we can’t find a leak — out of the equation. We realize there is not a whole lot of life left in this infrastructure anyway,” Kitz says.
Matt Brassard of Urban Systems agrees it is better to focus on connecting Lottie Lake to the new water line from nearby Ashmont. He estimates there is enough water in Ashmont to service Lottie Lake for 20 years.
That connection is expected to be made in early September. Unfortunately, that line will only bring the water to town, upgrading the infrastructure within Lottie Lake itself will cost $1.4 million, or approximately $10,000 per household.
Rural communities such as Lottie Lake generally pay for their own internal infrastructure through billing the residents who directly benefit. The proposed $10,000 per house plumbing bill has proven very unpopular in Lottie Lake, which is why council was hoping the supposedly leaky pipes could be easily addressed and used for a few more years.
Most residents attended an Aug. 23 community meeting in Lottie Lake to discuss the mysterious leak and the county’s plans. Kitz says they “weren’t happy people,” and believes the county will not get the two thirds support it requires from residents to charge the hamlet $1.4 million for the new water infrastructure.
“This is not a unique situation in the county of St. Paul. It’s happening all over the province and all over the country, where there’s aging infrastructure that is becoming challenging, and water is probably one of the biggest issues,” says Kitz. She explains worn out infrastructure must be replaced, but even though the government covers 75 per cent of the costs, the other 25 per cent is often still unaffordable for small communities.
The provincial government is aware of the problem. Transportation Ministry spokesperson Trent Bancarz says since 2005 the government has encouraged small communities to create regional water supply systems instead of each developing their own.
“It’s an ongoing challenge to maintain the infrastructure you have; do the repairs you need to do so that things are in good shape and they remain safe,” says Bancarz. “It makes a lot of sense for several communities to share a treatment facility and have the treated water to be piped to a smaller community rather than that smaller community building and maintaining a very expensive treatment plant.”
Alberta’s 2012-2015 capital plan has $585 million in funding available for water upgrades. That money is released in grants through the Alberta Municipal Water/Wastewater Partnership. That program covers 75 per cent of the cost, with the caveat that “municipalities could be subject to a 10 per cent reduction in grants if… the average annual consumption exceeds the norm for the area.”
“We’ve heard rumours that there might be some federal program that might assist municipalities. I haven’t heard anything formally on that but we’re certainly hoping that’s the case,” says Kitz. Meanwhile, she says council and Lottie Lake is banking on the Ashmont pipe coming online before trucking costs become unsustainable. After that, she says, perhaps the reduced needs of Lottie Lake’s winter population will make the challenge easier to deal with.