The City of Winnipeg says it does not owe a Shoal Lake First Nation compensation for selling water and sewer services to neighbouring municipalities after a legal review determined it has the right to withdraw water from the Ontario lake.
Diane Sacher, head of the city's water and waste department, said the City of Winnipeg hired external legal counsel last year to review some of the historical agreements governing the source of Winnipeg's drinking water. Sacher said the review determined Winnipeg does have the legal authority to withdraw water from Shoal Lake and distribute to neighbouring municipalities.
Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources launched a probe to see if Winnipeg's plan to extend its water and sewer pipes to interested municipalities violates any deals governing Shoal Lake. The move came after Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 First Nation threatened to sue the city, arguing Winnipeg has no right to sell water before it resolves decades worth of claims over lake water.
The community of 300 on-reserve residents is on a section of Shoal Lake that straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border. It has sent the City of Winnipeg an invoice for $8 million every month since October -- the amount the First Nation calculates the city bills its residents for water usage every month. Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 First Nation is threatening to file a court injunction if the city does not respond to their request for negotiations by Jan. 20.
Sacher said the city is not selling water, as the First Nation asserts. She said Winnipeg pays to pipe water into the city, treat it and distribute it.
"We don't believe there's any obligation for us to compensate them. We're not selling water, we're selling a service that we provide," she said late Thursday. "It costs us money to bring the water into Winnipeg and treat it and distribute it, and we recover those costs."
Ontario gave Winnipeg permission to draw water from Shoal Lake for municipal purposes in an order-in-council in 1913. Most of Shoal Lake is located in Ontario.
Sacher said Winnipeg received a licence approved by the federal government and International Joint Commission in 1914 that allows the city to withdraw up to 100 million gallons per day from Shoal Lake. Currently, she said Winnipeg withdraws about half its daily capacity. Sacher said the plan to extend water and sewer pipes to West St. Paul will not substantially increase the amount of water withdrawn from the lake.
She said future projections have determined that Winnipeg would still not exceed 100 million gallons per day in 50 years, even with population growth and if it extended its water and sewer pipes to all neighbouring municipalities.
"It really is a drop in the bucket for us," Sacher said, referring to how much extra water would need to be drawn from Shoal Lake for West St. Paul.
West St. Paul Mayor Bruce Henley said the city and province both support the service-sharing agreement between Winnipeg and the rural municipality, and the legal advice they've received to date suggests there's nothing to stop the deal from moving forward.
He said the RM will continue to negotiate with the city in the coming weeks. "We continue to work toward a service-providing agreement with the City of Winnipeg and we're cautiously optimistic this can be reached without any interference (from) the parties that are making claims in Ontario," Henley said.