Fort Saskatchewan water billing advocate Trina Okimaw-Scott feels like somebody is finally listening.
Okimaw-Scott was in her Westpark home on Wednesday (Apr.18) for the announcement of proposed provincial legislation that will provide free mediation services for Albertans needing help resolving water billing issues.
The proposed bill would expand the scope of Alberta’s Utilities Consumer Advocate (UCA) by adding water, sewage and drainage to the list of utilities under the UCA's mandate. Under existing legislation, there is no provincial body consumers can turn to for guidance on disputes with water providers. The UCA currently only handles electricity and natural gas disputes.
Speaking at her kitchen table next to Minister of Service Alberta Stephanie McLean, Okimaw-Scott shared her experience as a consumer trying to navigate the city’s water billing system.
“When I first noticed a spike in my water bill, I didn't know what to do. It was three times the usual amount and I felt helpless. I was personally affected by anomalous water bills three times since 2014,” Okimaw-Scott said. “I had to take time off from work and spend countless hours doing research, attending meetings and making phone calls looking for answers. Hopefully, now, consumers won't have to face these daunting tasks alone.”
In announcing the legislation, McLean said the bill will give a “helping hand” to Albertans dealing with water billing issues.
“[The legislation] responds to concerns of Albertans like Trina and many consumers like her across the province. They have shared their stories of unexpectedly getting hit with massive water bills and feeling frustrated with few resources to resolve their concerns.”
Okimaw-Scott said she has spent years dealing with water billing issues in Fort Saskatchewan. A few years ago she returned from a vacation to find a water disconnection notice hanging on her front door.
The local woman said she had just 11 minutes to race to city hall and pay the bill.
“Phoning them and saying, ‘Can I pay this online?’ even wasn't an option. It had to be paid in person at city hall. There was absolutely no forgiveness, no compassion, no understanding that these things could happen by no fault of your own.”
So began the “water wars,” the name Okimaw-Scott gives to her ongoing efforts to navigate a water utility system she says leaves people feeling powerless. In October 2015, Okimaw-Scott launched a Facebook group, Fort Sask Water Wars, to give a collective voice to local consumers who have concerns with their water bills.
One photo on the Water Wars Facebook page shows a Fort Saskatchewan water bill totalling nearly $1900.
Okimaw-Scott said she “felt good” about speaking on behalf of Alberta’s water consumers.
“I feel like we've been heard. It's not just me. I feel like the people of Fort Saskatchewan and Alberta have been heard. We've said enough. We've given our stories enough that somebody's actually sitting up and paying attention now.”