The Pallister government has denied Winnipeg city hall's request for an extension to develop a solution to reduce phosphorus emissions at its north end sewage treatment plant.
Instead, it is compelling the city to produce an interim phosphorus reduction plan by the end of January, for implementation beginning Feb. 1.
The province is requiring Winnipeg to participate in a pair of committees, to be co-chaired by city and provincial representatives, to kickstart the process.
The north end plant is considered to be the largest, single-point contributor of phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg. The presence of phosphorus in the Red River has been identified as the culprit for the appearance of the slimy green algae in the lake.
"Manitobans expect action on Lake Winnipeg. Manitobans expect action on dealing with phosphorus coming through the North End Water Pollution Control Centre," Municipal Relations Minister Rochelle Squires said Thursday.
Squires and Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard, whose department issued the order, said the province will be a partner with the city and the federal government in financing upgrades to the plant. But they wouldn't commit to any specific funding levels until a plan is in place.
The City of Winnipeg was required to have upgrades to the north end sewage treatment plan completed by Dec. 31, to reduce phosphorus emissions to one mg/litre from the current rolling average of 3.54 mg/litre.
The city has approved a $408-million project to upgrade the plant power supply and headworks facilities, but two subsequent projects — biosolid and nutrient removal — have a combined price tag of $1.38 billion, have not been approved and won't proceed without financial support from the province and Ottawa.
In July, the water and waste department asked the provincial government for a two-year delay to allow it to determine what interim measures could be put in place ahead of the final two projects being completed.
On Thursday, the province said no to that request.
A project steering committee will oversee implementation of both the interim phosphorus reduction strategy to commence in February, as well implementation of the upgrades to meet the licence requirements. It will be assisted by an advisory committee that will include representatives from the city, multiple provincial government departments, as well as key stakeholders, such as the International Institute of Sustainable Development, Lake Winnipeg Foundation and Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective.
"We will depend on expert advice. We will be cautious, but I think all Manitobans expect us to be moving forward on this particular project," Guillemard told reporters Thursday at the legislature.
Asked if the government was prepared to punish the city if it fails to meet its new deadlines, Guillemard said: "We haven't discussed any fines at this point. We have multiple options as a province to help the city come into compliance, and our choice is to work collaboratively with them."
She said the funding of any new initiatives is a separate issue. "Obviously, all three levels of government will be involved in this project. At this point, we're not discussing funding."
Alexis Kanu, executive director of Lake Winnipeg Foundation, said she was caught by surprise by the provincial announcement, but is pleased to see action. "We’re reassured this issue is being taken seriously, and we’re glad to have a seat at the table to ensure it moves forward."
Kanu said she’s unsure what interim measures the province has in mind, adding the water and waste department was considering an IISD/LWF proposal, as well as two others.
A spokesman for Mayor Brian Bowman's office said he only learned of the province's decision Thursday afternoon, and would withhold comment until Friday.
A spokesman for the city administration said civic officials will co-operate with the province.
"We don’t want to see any further delays on this project, and will work collaboratively with the province to move this project forward," said David Driedger, manager of communications. "We are hopeful that this collaboration will help ensure funding certainty on this project, as we are unable to provide timeline certainty until we have funding certainty."
However, NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the province of "muddying the waters," by putting strict conditions on the city without assuring it will put up the necessary funding to get the job done.
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.