Sun Times staff
The man in charge of enforcing Ontario’s drinking water standards says municipal drinking water in the province has become among the best protected in the world 10 years after E. coli bacteria killed seven people and made thousands sick in Walkerton.
“The first word that I would use to describe where we’ve come since 2000 is transformational,” said Ontario’s chief drinking water inspector John Stager.
Since the Walkerton water disaster, the province has enacted strict laws for treating, monitoring and testing municipal drinking water. Source water is better protected and system operators, inspectors and laboratories must now be certified and licenced.
But advocates for safer drinking water say more can and should be done to ensure every Ontarian — and Canadian — has access to safe, clean, reliable drinking water.
They point to a need for stricter regulations to protect the quality of Ontario’s lakes and rivers and to preserve the safety of private wells. They’re also calling on the federal government to provide stronger leadership by creating a national policy to boost water quality across Canada.
“We have made tremendous progress. Awareness is higher. The chance of large-scale contamination, like what happened in Walkerton, is far reduced. But, I do think we need to do more,” said Bruce Davidson, vice-chair of Concerned Walkerton Citizens.
Drinking water standards have drastically changed in the last 10 years.
The province says each of the 121 recommendations made by Justice Dennis O’Connor, following the Walkerton water inquiry, have been implemented. Stager said 600,000 drinking water tests are conducted annually at 56 certified laboratories. Compliance is at 99.8%.
At the time brothers Stan and Frank Koebel ran Walkerton’s water system in May 2000, testing labs were in private hands, few safeguards were in place and only guidelines existed for drinking water quality.
Two years after the Walkerton disaster, the provincial government approved the Safe Drinking Water Act, which established strict standards for municipal drinking water quality, testing, monitoring and inspections. The act, the result of recommendations contained in Part 2 of O’Connor’s inquiry report, requires certification for all municipal water systems, operators and testing labs.
New regulations for smaller, lower risk water systems, such as ones in place at churches and community halls, were approved in 2008, due to concerns over the high cost to municipalities to update small systems up to the same level as municipal systems.
The province also spent $50 million to build the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, a world-class training and education centre for owners and operators of municipal drinking water systems. It has trained 23,000 people to date.
A second major piece of safe-water legislation, which also came out of the Walkerton water inquiry, was approved in 2006. The Clean Water Act provides mandates to better protect sources of drinking water. Nineteen local Source Water Protection committees are now working to identify local threats to source water and draft a source protection plan to address them.
Mike Layton, deputy outreach leader at Environmental Defence, said clean water advocates are “excited” about the source water protection work, but believe more work is needed to protect drinking water for all Ontarians.
“We’re only protecting sources of water that are used for municipal drinking supplies. That leaves a lot of Ontario’s water as unprotected,” he said.
Christopher Waffle, a researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said the Clean Water Act does not address protection for private, stand-alone wells, which supply drinking water to 10 to 15% of Ontarians.
“It sounds like a small minority but when we’re talking about a province of 13 million people, you’re talking about up to two million people,” he said.
Nancy Goucher, co-ordinator of the Forum for Leadership on Water (Flow Canada), said up to 40% of rural wells contain bacterial concentrations, such as E. coli, that exceed provincial standards.
Flow Canada and EcoJustice Canada, a national environmental group, have written a policy paper that calls on the federal government to develop legally binding standards to protect all drinking water across the country.
Goucher said First Nations communities are not bound by Ontario’s safe water standards and only Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and the Yukon have adopted safe drinking water legislation.
She said Ottawa needs to create a “federal safety net” by adopting national safe drinking water standards to protect all Canadians.
EcoJustice lawyer Randy Christensen said rules are also needed to better protect the quality of the Great Lakes and all watersheds from contaminants.
“It’s much easier to prevent contaminants from getting in the water in the first place than to clean it up later,” he said.
Stager, who oversees a division of people at the Ministry of the Environment that inspect municipal drinking water systems, said it is imperative that the province never loses sight of the lessons learned in Walkerton.
That means scientists and water quality experts must continue to develop better ways to treat drinking water and be quick to identify any potential new threats, he said.
“It’s absolutely critical that we maintain that level of vigilance.”