Semiahmoo First Nation could have potable water – something they haven’t had in more than a decade – as early as next spring, after signing a pair of servicing agreements with the City of Surrey Monday.
The agreements, signed at Surrey’s council meeting, also mean sanitary-sewer infrastructure and water for fire protection for the first time in the nation’s history.
“It’s huge – it’s monumental,” SFN Chief Harley Chappell told Peace Arch News Tuesday. “Our late uncle, Grand Chief Bernard Charles, started the process of negotiating a connection with the City of Surrey in the mid-1970s, so it’s taken us almost 40 years to get to this point. It’s historic for us.
“It’s been a long road, but I’m glad and honoured to be part of it. A lot of work has been done in building relationships, building connections and bridges.”
Mayor Linda Hepner described the agreements as “an example of the City of Surrey taking tangible steps to help a neighbour in need.”
Chappell said Hepner was “obviously a huge part of this,” noting that Surrey’s transportation and infrastructure committee chair, Coun. Tom Gill was “instrumental in expediting” the agreements.
Chappell added that having a servicing connection is “an integral part of the puzzle,” particularly in gaining a commitment for future infrastructure funding from Indigenous Services Canada for water and sewer services.
“For a while there we were playing a cat-and-mouse game – the City didn’t want to commit to servicing without the ISC funding and ISC didn’t want to commit without the city servicing,” he said.
Chappell added the ultimate funding required from Ottawa is still being determined, dependent on engineering requirements, but he is hopeful that ground can be broken by late fall of this year, with first connections in place, in a best-case scenario, by the early spring of next year.
Chappell said a short-term agreement is in place for White Rock to continue to provide water to the western end of SFN lands outside of the “community core” (including the Semiahmoo Park area) until the end of 2019.
Steps towards the agreements were prompted by an August 2016 notice to the band from the City of White Rock, advising that the band’s water supply would be terminated “within… 18 months.”
White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin later described the termination as a “possible outcome… if we can’t come to some sort of negotiated agreement (surrounding the provision of services) that makes sense.”
Band councillor Joanne Charles and then-chief Willard Cook appealed to the City of Surrey for an emergency connection to that city’s network the following month.
At an October 2016 meeting of Surrey’s transportation and infrastructure committee, city staff confirmed that there was capacity to serve the SFN’s water needs, but that expanding such a connection to serve future growth on the reserve would be “a whole other exercise.”
“We don’t believe we have the capacity to provide service for future growth without some sort of improvements to our system,” city utilities manager Jeff Arason told the committee at the time.
Water-quality issues that have plagued the land since 1995 would also not be resolved by switching the reserve’s water supply, Arason noted.
Arason identified challenges including servicing the commercial property on the western end of the band’s land, due to its distance from the connection.
As well, if growth is planned, Surrey would need to upgrade its own system to accommodate that, he said.
A Municipal Type Service Agreement for the provision of storm water, water and sanitary was to come to council “in due course,” Arason told PAN following the meeting, adding that once agreements were negotiated, a water-service connection would take four to six weeks.
In June 2017, the SFN was announced as among 33 communities that would be receiving federal funding to assist with water infrastructure.
The $338,000 was to go toward the design of a new water-distribution and wastewater sewer system. Chappell confirmed at that time that the design work was a first step toward connecting to Surrey.
A news released issued by the SFN following Monday’s signing notes that “significant construction” will be required to replace the existing infrastructure.
According to a City of Surrey corporate report, the water and sanitary sewer proposed is to meet the day-to-day needs of up to 450 people, and “it is expected that SFN will be in a position to connect to the city’s systems sometime in late 2018 or early 2019.”
The servicing agreements were proposed for five-year terms, and to remain in force for four successive five-year periods “if the SFN duly and regularly pays the rates, sums and charges provided in each agreement and performs each and every covenant and proviso set out.”
They may be terminated after the first term by either party with one-year’s notice.
– with files from Tracy Holmes