Trochu and Three Hills are working on a unique deal with ATCO to provide water and wastewater services.
Under the proposed partnership, ATCO Water would purchase a minority ownership interest in the two communities’ water and wastewater systems. ATCO would manage the combined operations and provide capital for future upgrades.
Trochu CAO Maureen Malaka said the communities have been working together and with ATCO for more than a year to work out the best way to manage water and sewer services. It is hoped the finishing touches can be put on a deal in coming months and ATCO will be ready to begin managing the services next summer. Trochu and Three Hills are only 15 km apart and have formed close ties when it comes to handling water and wastewater.
The communities’ water is drawn from the Red Deer River and treated at a facility in Three Hills and collected in a reservoir, which then feeds water to Trochu.
Malaka said one of the major advantages with working with ATCO is the company is able to provide the kind of expertise that can be difficult for smaller communities to maintain. Under provincial rules, an employee must work for a municipality for a year before they can be trained to operate water and wastewater systems.
Trochu Mayor Barry Kletke agrees hiring, training and retaining water and wastewater applicators has been a recurring challenge.
“A lot of communities are competing against each other for these individuals,” he said.
“ATCO has got a good name in how they treat their employees. We don’t think we’re going to be looking around for water, wastewater operators like we have in the past.” As a major corporation, ATCO also brings solid financial assets to the table.
“Infrastructure costs down the road are going to be such that communities — a lot of them — won’t have that capacity to keep up their infrastructure.
“Partnering up with ATCO I think we got a little bit of infrastructure dollars we can use down the road.”
The impact on local utility bills has yet to be determined. Kletke said bills may go up slightly at first.
But rates would go up much higher down the road if the community was left to bankroll its own staffing and infrastructure.
ATCO Energy Solutions vice-president and general manager Tony Salters said the company announced about a year ago that it planned to pursue water opportunities in Alberta, both for industrial and municipal customers.
Since then, the economic slowdown has thinned out some of the industrial opportunities. For instance, the eight upgraders on the drawing board for Alberta dwindled to a list of about three.
“Our focus was slightly changed to putting more effort on the municipal side.”
The Three Hills-Trochu is a kind of test case for ATCO’s strategy of taking the P-3 public, private partnership model and putting a little twist in it. Instead of building and operating and transferring an asset back to the public entity, ATCO intends to maintain a stake in the water and wastewater system through its minority ownership.
It’s a method of aligning all of the partners’ interests going forward. Salters said ATCO plans to minimize rate increases while providing expertise and capital investment.
Salters said the company is already in talks with other municipalities.
ATCO Water is a division of ATCO Energy Solutions, a subsidiary of Canadian Utilities Ltd., which is part of ATCO Group.