Greenhouse expansion pushing Union Water system to its limit

RUTHVEN — The Union Water Supply System has reached the point where it can’t supply water needed for future greenhouse expansion in Kingsville and Leamington.

The situation is so severe it could halt expansion in its tracks if steps aren’t taken.

“There needs to be a decision, do we want all this growth they are predicting is going to happen,” said UWSS general manager Rodney Bouchard. “Do we want to service it? If we do, we have to put the money in place and the right people have to pay for what they are getting.”

Bouchard said local residents should not foot the bill for any capital expansion that is largely designed to satisfy one sector that uses large amounts of water.

The UWSS general manager said the system has made a number of improvements to increase water flow into the plant — like the retrofitting of clarifiers used to remove solids from the raw water coming from Lake Erie.

“We’ve been doing this to get us ready for the future, improving our processes, improving our clarification process so can put more water through the system,” he said.

But Bouchard said improvements to existing infrastructure won’t be able to handle greenhouse expansion if it continues at its current pace.

“That’s the low-hanging fruit — that’s trying to get as much out of this plant as we can with the lowest dollar,” he said.

“If they are planning another two, three, four thousand acres of greenhouses there is no way we can service that. If the municipalities, politicians want that development to happen here … we need a system in place to make sure growth pays for growth. Whoever it is who needs the demand is the one that pays for it,” he said.

The UWSS has a rated capacity of 27.4 million Imperial gallons per day. It hopes to raise that figure through infrastructure improvement to 32 million gallons per day. But rated capacity is different than actual capacity. The water authority needs a cushion, Bouchard said, otherwise there is always the danger of the reservoirs running dry. The water system has two reservoirs and has hired a consultant to study the feasibility of building a third.

“We could possibly produce more but at that point things don’t work well … pumps fail, things fail, processes fail,” he said.

The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) agrees that the sector needs to pay its share.

“The expectation would be that it’s the users who benefit from that expansion would cover the cost,” said Justine Taylor, science and government relations officer with OGVG.

But included in that cost allocation, she said, members of the UWSS board — Leamington, Kingsville, Essex and Lakeshore — must also consider the booming residential growth in each municipality.

In Kingsville, 596 new homes were built between 2015 and 2019. During the same period, the town approved 174.17 acres of new greenhouse development, including 50.32 acres in 2019.

There are at least another 600 homes planned over the next 10 to 20 years for the west side of the Kingsville town centre off County Road 20. The town is planning a new $20-million watermain to service those homes and increase water pressure.

During a similar period, from 2015 to the end of August this year, Leamington saw 748 new homes built.

“It’s not as simple as pointing to one sector to bear the entire cost,” Taylor said.

She added: “We’ll work closely with Union Water and the other stakeholders to ensure we don’t get to a crisis point — that there is sufficient water supply for greenhouse expansion and residential use.”

The OGVG has about 200 members provincewide, but the bulk of the acreage — 2,600 acres — is in Kingsville and Leamington. OGVG members grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

Taylor said the OGVG projects five per cent growth each year and said past expansion is consistent with that figure.

According to figures supplied by the water system, from 2017 to the end of July water permits have been issued for 1,150 acres.

Taylor said some operators may apply for water permits for a certain number of acres, but only build a portion of the allotment every year.

Bouchard, the UWSS general manager, said the system has no figures on water usage by cannabis growers — many of whom are using acreage formally devoted to vegetables to grow pot.

The Kingsville Observer interviewed four members of the UWSS board — Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos, Kingsville Coun. Kimberly DeYong, Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald and Essex Coun. Chris Vander Doelen.

They all echoed comments made by Bouchard: Growth must pay for growth.

“I don’t see any other way,” said MacDonald, who chairs the board. “And I don’t think you would get an argument from (OGVG) … they know that. I don’t think you’d get push back.”It’s all of our problem. Who pays for it, I think, will be pretty clear.”

Ministry of Agriculture opposes zoning change, mayor says

As greenhouse operations expand and the demand for services increases, there is a consensus growing among local politicians that zoning for the sector should change to reflect its industrial-level use of those services — such as water consumption and use of rural roads.

“It’s something that needs to be considered but there has to be an appetite at the top (Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) and so far there does not seem to be,” said Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald.

Greenhouses are currently zoned agricultural.

MacDonald said the difference between an industrial and agricultural zoning is “substantial.”

“It is an industry, we think it should be categorized unto itself … at least the portion that deals with packing and distribution, maybe not the farming component,” she said.

“It is wearing out some of the (road) infrastructure that is in place and it comes at a cost to the residents living nearby.”

In Kingsville, taxes from agricultural zoned land are 25 per cent of what the owner of residential property would pay. The industrial rate is two times the residential.

“The province has said no consistently,” said Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos. “We’ve certainly asked for change in tax classes.”

Santos and MacDonald met with Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman last week and discussed the zoning issue.

They were told “their ultimate product is growing food,” Santos said. He echoed MacDonald’s comments. The province has “certainly been hesitant to shift the zoning from an agricultural perspective,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Ontario Greenhouse, Vegetable Growers (OGVG), which represents farmers who grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, said OGVG would not agree to any move away from agricultural zoning.

“We produce food for Canadians across the country that by anybody’s definition is agriculture and to move away from that would be unusual,” said Justine Taylor, science and government relations officer with OGVG.

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