Union Water places one-year freeze on greenhouse permits

KINGSVILLE — The Union Water Supply System (UWSS) has placed a one-year freeze on water permits for new greenhouse developments to ensure there is enough spare water capacity to allow residential and commercial growth in Kingsville, Leamington, Essex and Lakeshore.

UWSS general manager Rodney Bouchard said the moratorium also applies — with a few exceptions — to pending applications awaiting approval.

“We recommended (to the management board) a moratorium of 12 months on any new large service applications to give us time to evaluate this further, come up with a better process and at the same time stop the large new service applications but not affect any residential or commercial development,” Bouchard said Friday.

A large service application is defined as any user which consumes 50,000 litres of water per day — a user group confined exclusively to greenhouses.

The board of management, which is comprised of the four municipalities, approved the freeze earlier this week. Leamington established its own moratorium last October.

In a report to the UWSS management board, Bouchard estimated the plant had two million gallons of spare or “unallocated” capacity left.

“We wanted to make sure that a portion of the remaining capacity was reserved for future residential growth that we’re expecting,” said Kingsville Coun. Kimberly DeYong, a member of the management board.

Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG), expressed disappointment over the freeze and wished his organization had been consulted prior to this week’s moratorium decision.

“I’m a little surprised that they had an organization that was supposed to be on top of this that I feel maybe was not …That’s looking back and I don’t think it makes sense looking backwards. Instead, we need to come up with joint solutions so we can continue to drive the economy in this area,” he said.

Sbrocchi said filling greenhouse water tanks during off-peak times at night when general usage is low could help ease any strain on the system. He said greenhouse operators could also draw water from the lake and purify the water themselves, in co-operation with the local municipalities.

“The solution is multifaceted. It doesn’t have to be one thing,” he said. “There are certain things that could be done that are within our ability to do. We’re eager to work with the towns and (UWSS) to make that happen.”

Sbroochi said the greenhouse industry is a key driver of the local economy in Kingsville and Leamington.

“I think it behooves us to remember that … (the greenhouse industry) needs to be protected and nurtured, that it isn’t something to be taken lightly,” he said.

Kingsville and Leamington have seen a dramatic increase in greenhouse construction, and water use, over the last few years.

The UWSS 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.

In an earlier interview, Bouchard said improvements to existing infrastructure were “low hanging fruit” and not enough to handle the demand for water if greenhouse expansion continues at its current pace.

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.

Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos, chair of the management board, said the two million gallons of spare capacity should accommodate the expected residential and commercial growth in the four municipalities. Santos said he doesn’t want to see a repeat of the 1990s when water shortages forced a freeze in development.

This is a pre-emptive move. Everyone saw a great boost in residential, even commercial, growth last year and we’re seeing that trend continue this year.

DeYong said the one-year freeze will buy the UWSS time to study water usage and come up with solutions to meeting the rising demand for water. She said a working group created at the UWSS is looking at usage and whether there are allocations of water that aren’t being used.

“Given the current allocations of capacity, they want to check and see is all that capacity being used or are there places that were allocated a certain amount and are they using that or are they using less,” she said.

DeYong said the working group will also look at the “first-come, first-serve” method of allocating water permits and whether it needs to be changed at a time of increased residential development.

According to figures supplied by the water system, since 2017 there were water permits issues for 1,150 acres of greenhouses as of the end July 2020.

In Kingsville, there were 596 homes built between 2015 and 2019. Last year there were about 160 homes built in Kingsville, Santos said.

“This is a pre-emptive move. Everyone saw a great boost in residential, even commercial, growth last year and we’re seeing that trend continue this year.”

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

Leamington has seen similar growth. From 2015 to the end of August last year, Leamington saw 748 new homes built.

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.

Santos said the building of an additional reservoir to increase capacity was originally part of the water plant’s 10-year plan, but is now part of the UWSS five-year plan. He said the increased demand for water may push the timetable for an additional reservoir up even further.

“It will be in next year’s budget for consideration.” he said Friday.

Bouchard’s report to the management board said the demand for water will increase as more greenhouse operators switch from food crops to cannabis “which appears to be a more water-intensive crop.”

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