BEYOND THE HEADLINES: More voices required

A basic principle of democracy is the direct involvement of constituents

A basic principle of democracy is the direct involvement of constituents. It may come in the form of voting, providing input on key issues or simply keeping elected officials on their toes.

And an example of that grassroots effort is the Citizens for Changes to the Master Water Plan, an affiliation of residents and former politicians and public servants.

“I’m glad some citizens have come forward,” said Coun. Catherine Lord after the group presented to Vernon council Monday.

“We will open up the plan and take another look at it. The plan at the regional district is to have public input and consultation.”

Citizens for Changes to the Master Water Plan, or CCMWP for short, was borne out of the fiasco that occurred last November when a majority of Greater Vernon residents refused to approve borrowing $70 million for capital projects. The Interior Health Authority had mandated the works to conform to drinking water standards, but the Regional District of North Okanagan’s sales pitch was weak, and speculation about the cost, water sources and operational practises was allowed to fester.

With RDNO officials still reeling from the referendum loss, CCMWP has tried to fill the void.

“We need to take a fresh, new look at the master water plan,” said Eric Jackson, group spokesperson.

“People on fixed incomes are finding it difficult to pay their water bills.”

Among the proposals coming from CCMWP is using Duteau Creek strictly for irrigation and shifting all domestic water use to Kalamalka and Okanagan lakes.

“Water use data for 2011 and 2012 on peak summer days shows only six megalitres or four per cent of the 150 to 160 megalitres of treated water was used for domestic purposes. The balance, or 96 per cent, of the treated water was used for agricultural irrigation,” said Jackson.

“Why are we treating the Duteau Creek water to supply mainly irrigation water?

CCMWP is pushing for an independent consultant to review the master water plan and develop a conceptual design for future works and a cost analysis.

“We want a new look at the whole master water plan to see where we went wrong,” said Jackson.

Obviously that’s fair comment, but who do local politicians take direction from?

“We can’t assume one group is speaking for all of the community,” said Juliette Cunningham, a Vernon councillor and Greater Vernon Advisory Committee chairperson.

That is also fair comment as members of CCMWP are well-intentioned and bring some expertise to the table, but their mandate and concepts may not represent the broader community, including those who voted against borrowing $70 million.

What if another group of residents makes a completely different set of demands regarding water? Should CCMWP be considered more relevant because it was formed first or because it includes a former Vernon mayor and  former councillors from the city and Coldstream?

And while CCMWP insists voters repudiated the technical merits of the master water plan, that may not be the view for some residents.

“We can’t assume to know what failed — the plan or funding for the plan,” said Cunningham.

The regional district is currently looking at its next steps for the master water plan, including a strategy for public input.

“We want an opportunity for all of the public to express their views,” said Cunningham.

Ultimately, members of Citizens for Changes to the Master Water Plan deserve praise for taking an active role on a critical issue that will impact the long-term future of Greater Vernon.

But the reality is that in the democratic system we hold so dear, other voices may and should come to the table.