A Disturbing Trend in Local Government

The resignations of over a dozen mayors and councillors in British Columbia over the past two years is “a disturbing trend,” according to a veteran of municipal politics.

Source: CBC – “A Disturbing Trend”

“Long hours, low pay and increased complexity cited” as the main reasons. In the decade that I’ve worked for local government, I can attest to seeing a steeper learning curve, long meetings (they’ve always been long), masses of documentation to read for each meeting, an increasingly social media-driven public, and some big issues that will take decades to overcome such as asset management, long-term financial planning and managing an infrastructure deficit that are real challenges for even experienced engineers and planners to work through, let alone mayor and council who are serving the community part-time on a stipend.

I’m not going to offer thoughts on solutions today, but I am going to affirm that I’ve seen real stories related to this disturbing trend, and the complexity of issues is not likely to ease. New or increasing challenges for local government are evident; such as aging populations, immigration, health care, managing growth (or contraction for some communities), energy costs, affordable housing, resource sector jobs, managing tax rates, and aging infrastructure. Providing leadership on this growing list of problems to solve on behalf of their communities, and building partnerships with agencies that are tasked with providing these services is a big task for councillors on top of the general administrative tasks of council that they face every week.

Overall, community leadership by elected officials is more technical than ever before and requires diligence and attention to detail for success. Communities, current councils, local government staff and the provincial government must work together to find solutions to stem the departure of elected officials and make serving on local government councils a positive leadership experience.

90% of Municipal Engineering is Communication

I’m regularly reminded of the importance of communication as a part of municipal as I provide updates on projects and operations to decision-makers. Unfortunately, most university programs in engineering, and many junior level positions fail to prepare graduates and young engineers for this reality. Design work, physics, materials, mechanics, chemistry, and hydraulics are foundational aspects of an engineering career, but success comes through effective communication.

The ability of an engineer to convey important information such as risks, options, budgets, issues and progress to decision-makers at a appropriate level of complexity for the audience is an art, and the ability to facilitatethe conversion of that information into useful action is critical to project, program and operational success.

Communication skills for municipal engineers must include:

  • a high level of public speaking ability
  • excellent grammar and report writing
  • storytelling with clarity
  • listening to achieve the best possible project/program/operational outcomes
  • breaking down and clarifying assumptions
  • understanding and communicating roles and responsibilities

A classic quote I’ve heard twice in the past week, in totally different contexts is “whoever tells the best story wins”. Understanding what “winning” is for a municipal engineer is key to unlocking this quote. The APEGBC Code of Ethics gives a great framework for unpacking this. An engineer’s priorities for communication should be based on the following items in the code of ethics, (paraphrased):

  • Hold paramount the public health and safety, protection of the environment and workplace safety.
  • Opinions should be based on knowledge
  • Fully disclose any conflict of interests
  • Give fair and honest professional comment
  • Present clearly to employers and clients the possible consequences if professional decisions or judgements are overruled or disregarded.
  • Report hazardous, illegal or unethical behaviour
  • Extend public knowledge of engineering and protect the professional from misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

All of these items require an engineer to tell a compelling story, to communicate their professional opinion, report accurately, or indicate the implications if their advice is ignored. Failing to communicate effectively may adversely impact an engineer’s ability to do his or her job, and may make it difficult to comply with the code of ethics.

Did you see what I did with the title of this post? I made up a statistic, based on personal experience, and backed it up with a short compelling story. Writing this blog is part of practicing the art of communication, I also read books of communication, one I’m currently reading is “Thank You for Arguing“, which I highly recommend.

All engineers aspiring to work for local government, either as a consultant or as an employee of the local government must recognize the importance of communication, and be prepared to display their communication skills to their prospective employers. Employers of municipal engineers need to push harder for excellence in communication as the benchmark for these positions – in this age of social media and Internet searching, it is no longer enough for a municipal engineer to have adequate communication skills, if you want to “win” you need to tell the best story.

Prince Albert’s Water, Oil Pipelines, and the Precautionary Principle

The City of Prince Albert in , has secured emergency water supply after almost two weeks of no water following an oil spill in the North Saskatchewan River by Husky Oil. Three different sources

A 30km temporary water line was installed from the South Saskatchewan River to the City’s water treatment plant, and another waterline connects the Little Red River to the treatment plant. Stormwater retention ponds are being filled as a backup supply if needed.

The event that caused this municipal nightmare was a 200,000 litre oil and thinning chemical spill into the North Saskatchewan River neat Maidstone, Sask, upstream of Prince Albert on July 20, 2016. The emergency service is truly just a temporary system, with mains laid on the ground, down road curb lines and across fields. But with winter any three months away, creativity will be high on the agenda.

As a water utility manager and emergency services director for a small municipality, I believe the staff and consultants working on this emergency are community heroes. The response to restore water to a community of about 40,000 people is an epic task requiring the cooperation of many jurisdictions and residents.

Husky Oil has been working hard on the clean up, drawing on expertise from across the country,( there are even people from assisting with the effort). Unfortunately it appears that they reported the spill 14 hours after monitoring systems notified possible issues. The City had several day’s notice of the contamination and were able to prepare businesses and residents of the likely closure of the treatment plant.

The Saskatchewan Government is facing criticism as another spill occured in the prince this week.

Saskatchewan’s Opposition NDP is calling for more government oversight of pipelines after learning of another spill in the province this week.

On Tuesday, 630 barrels of mixed oil and water spilled in farmer’s field northwest of Swift Current, Sask.

“It’s troubling that, once again, the people of Saskatchewan heard about this leak because of the media and not the government,” said interim NDP leader Trent Wotherspoon.

The precautionary principle is often considered the gold standard of environmental risk management, and should be the first consideration in drinking water supply management when considering activities in catchment areas. there are many communities across the world that draw their drinking water from major river systems with heavy industrial activities upstream, whether rail lines transporting oil, coal and chemicals, or pipelines carrying tar sands oil, these communities should consider a long term plan for securing a supply that has a lower risk of contamination.

Meanwhile, governments and oil companies need to ensure their people and systems are prepared to adequately respond to serious events such as this, I’m no clairvoyant, but this is going to happen again.


The idea of being a mentor, comes from the character with the same name in Homer’s Odessey, where Mentor has a teaching, encouraging, and oversight relationship with Telemachus, Odysseus’s son. The English language adopted the term to mean (via Wikipedia):

Mentor: someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.

The past couple of weeks have seen an increase in professional mentoring activities for me, some of these have come as unexpected opportunities, such as:

  • a high school graduate deciding on scholarship opportunities to study at a choice of three universities,
  • a manager asking for advice on discussing employee performance,
  • a second year student asking for advice on summer work placements and the benefits of options on future job prospects,
  • an engineer looking for professional growth resources,
  • a manager looking at potential job opportunities in other organizations.

I feel blessed to be able to dwell on these questions and provide input based on my experiences.

“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” – Steven Spielberg

Mentoring is a professional activity that doesn’t necessarily generate income or direct benefits for the mentor, but I’ve found that the benefits include:

  • practicing inter-generational communication
  • improves listening skills
  • exploring new questions and ideas
  • building a reputation as a subject matter expert
  • practicing leadership outside of my direct team
  • giving back is fun and energizing
  • it promotes a culture of professional growth

“The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting” – Plutarch

National Public Works Week

Public works is always there. Rain, hail, snow or shine, public works crews are dedicated to the job. They keep our cities and towns running so we can enjoy the essential services of the places we live and work.

Since 1960, APWA has sponsored National Public Works Week. Across North America, our more than 29,000 members in the U.S. and Canada use this week to energize and educate the public on the importance of public works to their daily lives: planning, building, managing and operating at the heart of their local communities to improve everyday quality of life.

Public Works WeekI love being a Public Works Professional, it is extremely satisfying to work on projects that improve the quality of life for all residents and use my knowledge and skills to solve problems that face the community. If you see a member of your city’s public works staff out and about this week, say hello and thanks for keeping things running!

White Rock Fire Results in Boil Water

Fighting the flames had put such a demand on the small local system that the city’s reservoirs dropped to “dangerously low” levels, explained councillor David Chesney.

“We haven’t drained our reservoirs, but they’ve gone down a tremendous amount in fighting this ,”

“We’ve not had any indication that there is a major problem yet, but … we just want to err on the safe side that we don’t endanger anyone’s life,” Chesney said.

White Rock experienced what appears to be a combination of backflow and reservoir drawdown as a result of the fire flows used to fight the fire. As flows increase, pressure drops in the surrounding watermains, potentially to the point where some areas may experience negative pressure, which can cause contaminated water to enter the watermains or even for the watermains to collapse.

White Rock has been in discussions with on what it would cost for the small municipality to join the larger regional water system, which may improve some of these operational challenges…

It would cost the City of White Rock $27 million over the next decade to join the Greater Vancouver Water District, according to a recently released report on the option, which the mayor said this week is not “off the table” just yet…

Incremental costs to the city – to pay for upgrades required to GVWD facilities as a result of the “additional demands” of having White Rock connected – were estimated to be $13.1 million over a nine-year period.

From a water system design perspective, fireflows are generally determined by the type of zoning and construction of the buildings involved, and in all cases a minimum pressure at that flow must be maintained to ensure that back flow issues do not occur and flows can continue to be delivered for the fire and for all other customers. For example many municipalities specific a minimum flow of 150 l/sec for multi-family dwellings, with a minimum pressure of 20 psi anywhere in the system as a result of these flows. With the reports coming out of White Rock, it appears that the system was unable to provide the flows used by the fire department without impacting the security of the water supply. Thankfully the fire was able to be contained to the immediate area and didn’t spread any further, however over 60 units were lost and about 100 people are without homes as a result.

The City of White Rock is not alone in dealing with infrastructure challenges and fireflows. For example, the City of has been dealing with several projects to improve fire flows in the community. The largest project is the Big Eddy Water upgrade, which received several million dollars in provincial and federal funding,with the remaining funds coming from the water system users for the long term upgrades that include improving fire flow capacity. As is seem above, costs for White Rock to join MetroVancouver’s system, the provision of a secure water supply can be extreme for small municipalities, and there are many competing demands for funds, with responses often being that “the system has served us well so far, so why do we need to change?” Expectations of health and safety are ever increasing, and the upgrades required to meet these are often competing with more popular projects.

Long-term sustainable and safe water supply is governed by regional health authority requirements in BC. Some of the necessary components of a drinking water program include:

  • Treatment and barrier approach
  • Good governance
  • Emergency response planning
  • Monitoring and measurement
  • Funding for operations and maintenance to cover lifecycle costs
  • Continuous Improvement and training

Incident such as this reminds us of the importance of each of these components, and that systems improve through monitoring incidents and issues and learning from failures.

One of the challenges faced was the lack of an emergency phone number for after-hours emergencies, from news reports and the City of White Rock’s website, it appears that emergency calls after-hours were forwarded to the Fire Department, rather than directly to public works staff. Without knowing the details, this likely slowed down the response from the water utility crew, who may have been able to increase flows from the aquifer or otherwise assist the fire department in managing the water supply for the fire. The ability to communicate with and call-out the appropriate qualified staff to assist is an important part of a municipal water emergency response plan.

I wonder if this incident will precipitate further community discussion on joining MetroVancouver’s water service, and whether in the future it will be seen as the tipping point for that decision?

Feature Photo Credit: BC Emergency Photos via Compfight cc

Sustainable Civil Engineering

Earth day is just around the corner, and it is important that we make sustainable choices in the areas that we have influence in. I’m a big advocate of sustainable , and it is an area that I have some influence in, to the point where almost all of the major projects I work on are run through the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System, which provides a framework for measuring the sustainability of a project and enabling options to be compared for sustainability

To learn more about sustainable engineering and why this matters, from finances to health, check out this infographic created by Norwich University’s Online Master of Civil Engineering Program. Continue reading “Sustainable Civil Engineering”