‘It’s a disgrace’: Willowbrook, B.C. residents without drinking water for two years, no end in sight
Ann and Hector Proulx along with 150 other residents in the tiny South Okanagan community of Willowbrook, B.C., approximately 31 kilometres south of Penticton, have been without potable water for at least two years.
“I think it’s a darn disgrace actually,” Ann Proulx said on Monday. Residents have been under a boil-water notice which means you must bring it to a rolling boil on a stove top for at least 60 seconds to kill the harmful bacteria. Many are relying on bottled water as it’s more convenient.
“Do something. Two years of standing still isn’t going to do it.”
The community’s water source is a groundwater well which pumps into the distribution system and up to a reservoir on a nearby property. The reservoir feeds the distribution system, of approximately 4.5 km of pipe, by gravity to each connection.
The system was operated privately but it was taken over by the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS) in 2016.
Health officials say the well is at high risk of contamination.
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“The water system had been experiencing sporadic but consistent sample results with total coliform bacteria in them,” said Chris Russell, an environment officer with the Interior Health Authority (IHA).
Last June, engineering firm WSP concluded: “given the location of groundwater wells and proximity to residential properties with septic disposal fields, further treatment and source water protection measures are recommended to reduce the risk of contaminants.”
According to the engineering report, the cost of installing a chlorination and UV treatment system as well as building and electrical upgrades will cost $1.8 million.
The tiny community doesn’t have the reserve funds to cover the costs of the needed upgrades. It is relying on grant funding to knock off projects one by one, but the local area director says it is time for a referendum to borrow the needed funds.
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“We’re already starting to lose residents due to the flooding and fire costs so we’re trying to slow it down, get it into a loan situation and spread it over 20 years,” said Rick Knodel, Area C director for rural Oliver.
Users’ water bills have skyrocketed in recent years.
“From about $350 to over $1000 a year for water,” said resident Kelly Riome.
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Riome said her property tax bill also doubled. She said she can no longer afford to live here and put her home up for sale.
“We love our property, we love our house, but this is just ridiculous.”
“It devastates me, the intent for government should never be to destitute your people,” said Knodel in response to long-time residents moving away because they can’t afford the fee hikes.
Andrew Reeder, operations manager with the RDOS, said grant funding has already covered numerous upgrades to the system and more is on the way. He doesn’t think a referendum on borrowing the funds is necessary to complete the whole project.
“The challenge is that it is a very small water system, it really has been run into the ground a bit, we’ve had to do quite a few repairs to keep the system running,” he said.
Knodel says it could be another two years until the water is safe to drink.
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