Halifax Regional Water Commission

Canada's world-class water utility

Halifax Regional Water Commission (HRWC) is the regulated water, storm water and wastewater utility operating within the Halifax Regional Municipality.
 The Commission was created in 1945, and was given the specific task of taking over the previous water utility operation and modernizing it. After two World Wars and the Great Depression, the otherwise neglected system was in desperate need of restoration.

Fast-forward more than half a century later and the HRWC is still operating under the banner of constant improvement. Only now, its mandate is much bigger.
In 1996, it went through a metro amalgamation and saw four communities (Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and Halifax County) merge into one. At that time, assets were transferred to the Commission, and what used to be Halifax Water Commission added ‘Regional’ to its name.

The HRWC was doing such a great job that in December of 2007, the Commission became what general manager Carl Yates calls a victim of its own success. The mandate got even bigger, now including wastewater and storm water treatment. “In recognizing that Halifax’s wastewater system was in rough shape, City Council decided to transfer the wastewater and storm water assets to HRWC,” Yates explains. “With that, we became the first-ever regulated water, wastewater and storm water utility in Canada.”

“It was sort of like déjà-vu,” he laughs. “What we did with the water system back in 1945 is what’s before us now with wastewater and storm water. We have to turn around a deteriorated system and bring it up to better conditions for the betterment of our customers and the environment we serve.”

New mission

In recognition of its additional assets, the Commission briefly considered changing its name again. In the end, however, the team decided to keep HRWC and just brand itself ‘Halifax Water.’ “’Halifax Water’ is easy and all-encompassing,” says Yates. “The name also symbolises that we hold all three services up to a high standard, just as we always have with drinking water.”

The HRWC might not have changed its title, but it did feel it necessary to change its mission statement. “We decided to take a simple approach to our new statement. It says we are ‘to provide world-class services to our customers and our environment.’ It’s short and sweet, but it says a lot. We want cities all over the world to talk about our operations; our name should come up in discussion about best practices in water. The statement also recognises that we place the environment at the same level as our customers. We believe that we can’t separate the two; they are one in the same. Last, we put the word ‘our’ in front of both ‘customer’ and ‘environment’ to recognise accountability.”

Challenge and change

Relatively speaking, the HRWC’s responsibilities are relatively new, and the team still has many challenges ahead. “One of the main things is looking at asset management to turn the infrastructure situation around,” says Yates. “Another element we have to factor in is getting ready for and becoming compliant with federal wastewater regulations from the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME).”

Yates is referring to the Canada-wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent, which was endorsed by the CCME on February 17, 2009. The strategy sets out a harmonized framework to manage discharges from more than 3,500 wastewater facilities in Canada, many of which are currently in need of repair and upgrading.  It provides an agreed-upon path forward for achieving regulatory clarity for owners of municipal wastewater facilities.  Performance standards will increase protection for human health and the environment on a national basis. Bilateral agreements between the federal government and provinces and territories will ensure one-window regulatory delivery of the strategy.

“This strategy is the biggest regulatory reform that we will see in my lifetime,” Yates maintains. “We’re positioning ourselves for compliance with future regulations, but there is a lot to consider. It’s such a tall order that there is a 30-year time frame to get everything in compliance. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it was the biggest industry change in my lifetime! It will make the post-Walkerton water regulations look like a choir boy’s picnic.”

Not only will compliance take a long time to align, but it will have significant cost implications. “[The regulations are] essentially setting a national standard for wastewater treatment plants,” says Yates. “And that gets expensive and complicated, especially with management of combined sewer overflows. We’re pushing for funding from Nova Scotia and federal government. I think a one-third-each plan is appropriate for each level of government—municipal, provincial and federal.”

Where they are now

There are basic provincial standards for wastewater treatment, but when the HRWC took over, the assets were not even close to meeting current regulations. That remains a huge challenge for the Commission. “What we have to do is leap frog,” Yates laughs. “We have to forget about meeting today’s standards and aim for CCME regulatory compliance. And as I said before, it costs money, and now we have to convince the government that this is a priority. Unlike the water utility, where it’s pay as you go, there are no reserves or depreciation funds set up in wastewater treatment to pay for renewals or improvements.”
The way Yates sees it, the Halifax Regional Municipality can no longer defer investment into these assets. “If we keep delaying it, we will have to look at our kids and tell them we’re giving them one heck of an infrastructure deficit to deal with. The best option is to start working with the baby boomers and get them to pay attention. I can say that confidently as a boomer,” he laughs. “It’s clear to me that we have a responsibility. The X and Y generations get it.  I hear it from my own kids. We have to be good stewards of our resources.”

More than qualified

If there is any organization that can handle a challenge it is certainly the HRCW. After all, the Commission has a track record of rising to the occasion. Take water loss, for example. One of the HRWC’s claims to fame is its leadership role in water loss control—a problem that a lot of communities still struggle with.

“It’s not uncommon in the rest of the country to see utilities waste 15 to 50 per cent of their water,” says Yates. “Water leaves the plant but never reaches the customer because it leaks through the pipes. It’s a waste of resources and tax dollars.” He explains the problem is due to a lack of refined methodology and data; a lot of water companies do not know how much water they are actually losing, and if they do, how to fix the problem.

“We tackled that problem in the late 1990s,” Yates continues. “We have reduced leakage by 35 million litres per day. The HRWC has recaptured that loss and we now have fewer disruptions and water main breaks. In fact, we find breaks before they find us. That’s because we have the technology to do it, which puts us about 10 years ahead of everyone else.”

In a 2007 article Yates wrote for Water World, he says that the HRWC has revolutionized leakage prevention and that the reduced leakage of potable water translates to savings of more than $550,000 per year.  He writes: “In addition to saving HRWC millions of dollars, the automated collection, dissemination and analysis of real-time data and subsequent reduced water loss has brought additional benefits to the utility, including:

- Deferral of capital investment and extended equipment lifecycles;

- Reduction in greenhouse gases (as the production and distribution of drinking water is very energy intensive);
- Improved customer buy-in for water conservation due to the utility’s reduction in water waste;

- Decrease in service interruption to customers;

- Decrease in damage to adjacent properties by early detection and repairs under controlled conditions;

- Minimized liability from damage claims as the utility demonstrates a commitment to best practices in water loss control;

- Increased public health protection with elimination of long-term, aggravated leakage.

“Data that is visible, accessible and actionable is the foundation for any utility looking to optimize the process as described in the IWA/AWWA framework. With the PI System in place as a proven data historian, HRWC is able to facilitate decision making, quickly respond to issues and reduce water loss.”
Halifax Water’s methodology has been so successful that the team is working with cities such as Montreal on their issues with leakage. “Now we teach others about what has worked for us,” says concludes. “The solution involves a technical aspect, as well as a change in approach to management. It’s just as hard to change behaviour as it is to change technologies. It takes a real dedication to make a lasting change.”

And that dedication is exactly what the HRWC has been modeling for the rest of Canada for the last 65 years. As Halifax Regional Municipality faces obstacles and challenges in complying with new wastewater regulations, its citizens can remain confident that their system is in the right hands.