A Canada-U.S. commission has put a plug in Winnipeg's plan to sell water to neighbouring municipalities, emboldening First Nations already opposed to the idea.
The City of Winnipeg announced Monday it has put off a plan to extend water pipes into the rural municipalities of Rosser and West St. Paul. Council approved the idea in 2011 as part of proposed service-sharing deals that would also see the city treat its neighbours' sewage.
The city turned off the tap after receiving a letter from the International Joint Commission (IJC), a Canada-U.S. body that prevents and resolves cross-border water disputes. A report to council said the IJC has undisclosed "issues" with the city's plan.
Winnipeg chief operating officer Deepak Joshi said the IJC wants to know whether the city's service-sharing plans comply with a 98-year-old agreement governing the watershed.
"They wanted to get a better understanding that we are still within the order from 1914," said Joshi, who declined to share a copy of the letter.
IJC officials could not be reached for comment.
Earlier this year, two Ontario First Nations situated along Shoal Lake, the source of Winnipeg's drinking water, launched a court challenge against the city's move. Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 First Nation and Shoal Lake No. 40 argue Winnipeg must but did not obtain their consent.
Shoal Lake 40 Chief Erwin Redsky said the international body's letter supports the First Nations' position that Winnipeg does not have the legal authority to move ahead with plans to extend water pipes beyond its borders.
Redsky said his community's land is directly affected by the water sale and the First Nation may file a separate application to the IJC.
"Like I've said many times, I would rather negotiate than go through the courts," he said.
Most of Shoal Lake is in Ontario, except for the western half of Indian Bay, which is in Manitoba. Winnipeg gets its water from Indian Bay through a 155-kilometre aqueduct completed in 1918.
Ontario and Ottawa gave Winnipeg permission to draw water from Shoal Lake in 1913, while the IJC followed suit in 1914. Shoal Lake 40 has land near the aqueduct intake; Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 is farther east.
In spring, Winnipeg chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl said he wasn't concerned with the lawsuit from the two communities.
"We've done our due diligence and we feel comfortable with our position," the CAO said then.
The city's decision to hold off on extending water pipes into Rosser has complicated efforts to finalize a deal to extend water and sewer services to 405 hectares of industrial land set aside for CentrePort Canada, an international trade hub under development near Richardson International Airport. While some businesses that have purchased CentrePort land have dug wells to ensure they can fight fires, other companies have held off until the RM secures a deal with Winnipeg.
CentrePort officials were not aware of the city's move to delay water services, but they are familiar with the issues involving Shoal Lake and will wait and see what council decides, said marketing and communications director Riva Harrison.
"Not having water servicing at CentrePort would be a problem for us, and I imagine our board would need to discuss the implication of that, should council go that way," Harrison said.
The city is proceeding with plans to extend sewage-treatment pipes to both Rosser and West St. Paul. The city has the capacity to treat more sewage and more water, Joshi said.
The city is also considering a plan to provide municipal garbage and sewage-disposal services to Shoal Lake 40, whose landfill closed earlier this year. The move will alleviate environmental concerns along Indian Bay, Joshi said.
The city may provide Shoal Lake 40 with Dumpsters, which could then be taken to Winnipeg for disposal along the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railroad. Since the First Nation does not have year-round road access, it would require a barge or a revamp of the band's existing ferry.
Redsky said the city has helped find a temporary solution for his community's waste issues.
"We are very pleased, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the federal government," he said.