Stefanson, Bowman announce $552-M tripartite deal for North End sewage plant upgrade
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The city, province and federal governments will provide more than a half-billion dollars for the second phase of Winnipeg’s North End sewage treatment plant upgrade, deeming the move a long overdue effort to tackle water pollution.
However, an expected $360-million price hike for the project has yet to be addressed.
On Tuesday, politicians gathered to promise $552 million for the next round of construction in the three-phase project, for which the feds will pay up to $201 million, the province will provide about $167 million and the city will cover at least $184 million.
Since the North End plant is the largest point source of the phosphorous, which fuels algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg, the pledges were described as a significant step forward for the lake.
“I’ve seen, in my lifetime, the deterioration in the health of our lake,” said Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman. “These investments are absolutely crucial to turning that around.”
Winnipeg first applied for funding for the first two phases of the upgrades in October 2019 but only Phase 1 was covered through a July 2021 agreement. Bowman has long blamed project delays on former premier Brian Pallister.
On Tuesday, the mayor expressed gratitude to Premier Heather Stefanson for getting the funding through.
“Thank you very much for ending the logjam at the legislature and really helping deliver for Winnipeg and for Winnipeggers,” said Bowman.
While the project is moving forward, it isn’t clear how far the funding commitment will stretch. In June, a city report estimated the cost for Phase 2, which will upgrade the city’s biosolids facilities, will rise from $552 million to $912 million. That’s partly due to a $130-million expansion to the project’s scope, which will reduce the amount of algae-promoting phosphorous in the plant’s effluent to one milligram per litre or less, an environmental target the province has ordered the city to meet.
The rest of the increase is blamed on $190 million of inflation and project delays and $33 million for project financing and other smaller costs.
Work to reduce the water pollution was originally expected to take place during the third and final $828-million “nutrient removal” phase of the project, before the province called on the city to speed up that work. Phase 2 will also expand sewage-treatment capacity.
Coun. Brian Mayes, council’s water and waste chairman, said speeding up efforts to reduce water pollution is worth the investment.
“This is costly, it is. (And) it’s not as obvious as a pothole is to the average person. That said, environmentally, it’s certainly important,” said Mayes (St. Vital).
The councillor noted the city and province are also discussing whether Phase 3 of the upgrade could be delayed, greatly minimized or scrapped entirely, now that pollution will be reduced sooner.
“I think there’s plenty of time… to ask the question, ‘Do we really need to do this?’ That’s the silver lining in a more expanded and expansive Phase 2 is maybe you don’t need to do Phase 3, or maybe you can do it a decade later than you thought,” said Mayes.
The head of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation called Tuesday’s announcement “an incredible step forward for Lake Winnipeg,” blaming phosphorous as a key driver of thick, green algae that can foul the lake and its shoreline.
“It’s something we can implement to protect the lake right away,” said Alexis Kanu, the foundation’s executive director.
The upgrade’s third phase was expected to drastically reduce algae-promoting phosphorous and nitrogen in the plant’s effluent, since some scientists believe both must be tackled. However, Kanu said algae can draw nitrogen from the atmosphere, so the foundation believes reducing just phosphorus concentration in sewage effluent is an effective way to combat algae growth.
Bowman and Stefanson told media the potential cost hike for Phase 2 of the sewage upgrade is still being discussed, with both stressing there is plenty of time to fine-tune the project’s final cost.
“The inflationary pressures that are out there right now are significant. So, I think it’s going to be incumbent upon all of us to work together to find a solution to that,” said Stefanson. “We’re in unprecedented times right now, with some of the challenges that we’re facing, and obviously all of these projects we want to move forward.”
City officials said construction on the next phase of work is expected to begin in 2025, with a Phase 2 target completion date in 2030.
“Realistically, we do expect that budget to have to be modified but there’s time to do that,” said Tim Shanks, Winnipeg’s director of water and waste.
The overall North End upgrade has an estimated cost of $1.85-billion, though the expected Phase 2 price hike has not been factored in.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.
Updated on Wednesday, August 17, 2022 9:23 PM CDT: Corrects that the foundation believes reducing just phosphorus concentration in sewage effluent is an effective way to combat algae growth