Case Study: “Made in Manitoba: Integrating Climate Action with Asset Management”

Background  

The Regional Municipality of Dufferin is a small rural community located southwest of Winnipeg. The RM has roughly 2,500 residents and covers an area of about 916 square kilometers. The RM of Dufferin is home to farmers, agri-business, and the University of Manitoba Ian N. Morrison Research Farm. 

The RM of Dufferin may not be a big municipality or have a lot of resources to spare but they are taking steps in integrating climate action and asset management.  

The Importance of Climate Change 

The RM of Dufferin is experiencing the impacts of climate change in their community.  They’ve had floods, droughts, and snowstorms that have knocked out power for multiple days. There is a recognition that conditions that affect service delivery are changing and it’s prudent to acknowledge, plan, and act. 

The Approach 

The RM of Dufferin is just getting started in their asset management journey. Staff have realized how important it is for a small team like theirs to have asset management processes in place to support good succession as people with lots of infrastructure and operations knowledge retire. Through FCM’s Municipal Asset Management Program, they were able to acquire a grant to hire consulting help to develop an asset management policy and strategy.  

Seeing opportunity to continue their asset management journey, the RM also signed up to participate in the Canadian Network of Asset Managers’ Climate Action Cohort in the summer of 2022. With asset management being so new to so many, staff had no idea how to start integrating climate considerations in their early asset management journey, but they knew that it was important for resilience and needed to start somewhere. “We started with having half administrative staff and half public works staff. All around there was not much experience. We recognized that we have challenges with climate change and we recognized that we would probably be in over our heads, but we felt that participation would help us get organized and working as a team. It would help us increase our knowledge base and get familiar with the language.” 

Challenges  

Early participation in the Climate Action Cohort led to an overwhelming situation and a feeling like “ducks out of water”. The RM and their team were small compared to the other participants and the climate change and asset management contexts were so different. Staff felt far behind other municipalities that have been able to invest more human and financial resources into developing their approach to asset management and understanding climate impacts. This feeling of being behind nearly derailed their participation in the Cohort – partway through their team considered pulling out of the program. The team chose to continue with the Cohort and to lean on the asset management strategy they had previously developed. The next step identified in their strategy was to articulate levels of service – staff decided to give this a try for gravel roads, and to implement what they were learning from the Cohort to take first steps in considering climate change at the same time.  

This initial step involved sitting down with Public Works staff and talking through all of the current activities related to maintaining gravel roads. Through the conversation staff were able to draw direct connections between operations activities like snow and ice control to potential climate impacts. Supportive tools like the Alberta Asset Management Handbook and Toolkit template for levels of service and climatedata.ca helped the RM work through suggested steps for defining levels of service and access context-specific climate data. Staff were able to have discussions about how changes in climate may need different operations and maintenance strategies, like where plowed snow is piled in the event of a sudden spring warm up which can result in overland flooding. Making the conversations about levels of service and practical climate change connections were key to shifting the perspective of all involved – asset management all together can be overwhelming, but when you take it apart, you can simplify the steps into more manageable pieces. 

The RM’s staff complement is small, which comes with its service delivery challenges. By being small, individuals have a very broad understanding of how services are delivered from operations to capital planning – the team’s perspective is this is a privilege rather than an obligation. “One of the benefits of being a smaller community and asset management team. Our perspective comes from being passionate about our community and meeting the needs of our community more so than coming into our jobs educated and prepared to do the job that we were hired for. Being that we’re so small, we get to do everything and there aren’t a lot of places other than small towns where you get to do everything. We see it all, from the top to the bottom.”. This mindset is key to being successful in the face of budget constraints – being a small municipality there is heightened awareness using resources of time and money as effectively as possible, and then some!  

Results  

The RM of Dufferin’s perspective about progress has shifted – they are not ahead or behind other municipalities, they are simply on the asset management and climate change journey that is unique to Dufferin. Once the team diverted energy away from comparing their context to others and focused on what they could learn from others, they were able to make and sustain progress.  

Getting Public Works involved in documenting current levels of service has also been key to accelerating their progress in integrating climate change and asset management. “We saw the light turn on with our Public Works staff. They got it at that point – it became not something that they had to do but it was actually something that they were already doing.” (Sharla, ~9 min). The work the RM did in documenting first draft levels of service piqued the interest of Public Works staff – simplifying first steps and drawing connections between asset management and what Public Works is already doing supported a perspective shift in the value of asset management. Public Works staff were able to connect that the questions they ask each other when making operations and maintenance decisions like “Can the schoolteacher get to church on Sunday in her Volkswagen in the middle of February?” were ways they were already talking about levels of service! 

What’s Next for the RM of Dufferin 

The shift in perspective about breaking asset management down into smaller pieces and asking climate-related questions along the way has unlocked curiosity and excitement in staff. Realizing that “this isn’t a chore!” has been a source of relief and energy for this small team. “We have the tools now to understand where we’re headed and how to move forward.” 

The process of documenting first draft levels of service has also been connected to the need to formalize the information provided to Council when developing infrastructure and operations plans and budgets. Staff realize that supporting Council in connecting projects with impacts to maintaining levels of service is key information that they need to make good trade-off decisions. As for their asset management journey, the RM knows “We are still at the stage where we need support and are still working on putting it all together. Our main goal is to continue to make progress.” 

Advice for other small municipalities that are just getting started 

“Just start somewhere, anywhere! It may sound simplistic but take the first step. It’s not going to be the same thing for everyone because we’re not all the same people. It really doesn’t matter; you need to pick something and start. There’s no wrong answer.” 

This initiative is offered through the Municipal Asset Management Program (MAMP), which is delivered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), and funded by the Government of Canada.