CENTREPORT Canada plans to draw water from the Assiniboine River to work around a First Nations legal challenge that had stalled the development of the international trade hub on the northwest edge of Winnipeg.
But the plan might push up the price tag of the infrastructure project that has ambitious economic goals.
Since 2008, the city and province have struggled with a jurisdictional headache surrounding the extension of services to CentrePort, a 8,000-hectare industrial development that straddles the border of Winnipeg and the RM of Rosser. A tentative deal was struck in 2011 for the two levels of government to share the $17-million cost of extending water and sewer pipes into Rosser.
But a legal challenge from a pair of northwestern Ontario Ojibwa communities effectively turned off the tap last year. Two bands situated on Shoal Lake, the source of Winnipeg’s drinking water, argued the city had no right to sell water to neighbouring municipalities.
In April, the International Joint Commission, a Canada-U.S. body that governs cross-border water disputes, agreed with the First Nations by ruling Winnipeg would be violating the terms of a 100-year-old agreement to use Shoal Lake’s water.
On Monday, the city, province and CentrePort came up with a new plan: Winnipeg will extend sewer pipes into Rosser from the east, while treated water from the Assiniboine River will be piped in from the west.
The plan, reached during a meeting between Premier Greg Selinger and Mayor Sam Katz, is intended to kickstart the development of CentrePort lands, which will soon be serviced by a $212-million highway called Centre-Port Canada Way, financed by the province and Ottawa.
"We are basically at a point where we need certainty of supply of water at CentrePort," CentrePort CEO Diane Gray said Tuesday. "We have agreed all together the way forward involved an alternative water supply."
The city, province and CentrePort started working on the alternative servicing plan when it became apparent the legal issues surrounding the extension of pipes from Winnipeg would not be resolved — and the loss of a potential anchor tenant in the form of a Facebook server farm.
No one was prepared to say how much this new plan would cost, but it would likely involve the construction of a water-treatment plant in Headingley.
"If we want economic development to take place there we can’t have this uncertainty hanging over our heads," said Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux. "So we need to be able to move on this."
If the Facebook plant were to have gone ahead, an $18-million water treatment plant would have been built in Headingley, said Mayor Wilf Taillieu. But Lemieux said it’s too soon to speculate about the details of the water-servicing plan. A spokeswoman for Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said the city will not contribute funds to any new water-treatment plant, though the city would use part of its $8.5-million servicing commitment to extend sewer pipes into Rosser.
CentrePort board chairman Don Streuber, the CEO of Bison Transport, said there is growing investor interest in the industrial site, but clarity on the servicing schedule is essential before any deals can be concluded.
"For instance, if IKEA had been interested in CentrePort, they would have laughed at us because water service is essential," Streuber said.
"It has been a challenge for us to drill down with any specific anchor tenant beyond a brand-awareness discussion about what we are building," Gray added. "They all need that firm timeline."
The resolution of the servicing is needed to prevent CentrePort from becoming a "white elephant," said St. James-Brooklands Coun. Scott Fielding, one of CentrePort’s biggest supporters on city council.
"At the end of the day, it’s $212 million in dollars invested from two levels of government," he said. "We need to come to a conclusion extremely fast."
Fielding, however, said it makes more sense for Winnipeg to annex the southwest corner of Rosser, a move he called "the only sensible solution" to the dispute. Annexation, he suggested, would be cheaper than building a new plant.
The province and Rosser have expressed little interest in expanding Winnipeg’s borders.