Canadian Water and Wastewater Association eBulletin

Water Haller: Walkerton & Flint Are Related...But Not To Infrastructure

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A recent Toronto Star editorial (attached) spoke to the water crisis in Walkerton in 2000 and the recent crisis in Flint. But the article made some illogical connections to our infrastructure challenges. Worse, the editorial made very inappropriate suggestions that the health of our communities are at imminent risk due to these infrastructure challenges – trying to create fear in the readers of "water-borne perils." I appreciate that the Star is reporting on water and recognizes the challenges we face with infrastructure, asset management and financing, but they are using the wrong examples and creating the wrong fears.

In response, I helped co-author a letter to the editor (see article "Letter to the editor, Toronto Star")  with my colleague Brenda Lucas of the Southern Ontario Water Consortium. Brenda’s primary concerns were the assertions that little has changed since Walkerton and there has been an "astonishing lack of follow-up" to the O’Connor Inquiry recommendations. We believe a lot has changed since Walkerton. The Ontario Safe Drinking Water Act started it all off by requiring engineering reports for all systems and operator training and new reporting requirements and a clarification of responsibilities. Further legislation has launched for source protection efforts and asset management requirements. Similar legislation has been developing across Canada. There is always more we can do, but we have made great strides in the last 20 years (changes were happening out west before the Walkerton crisis).

My concern was the misinterpretation of the Walkerton and Flint stories into a narrative that is intended to cast doubt on the safety of our drinking water. While the size and the details are different from Walkerton to Flint, I chalk both up to extremely poor management decisions followed by criminal cover-up attempts. For those who haven’t heard my story, I started my Masters in Public Administration at UWO just a few months after the Walkerton crisis and focused most of my work on policy implications arising from the Inquiry. A quick review of the Walkerton situation shows a series of bad decisions that led to the perfect storm or worst-case scenario. But the truly criminal act was when the hospital called to see if the water showed any signs of e coli and the operators lied and said all was fine. The hospital had to assume it was a case of bad hamburger somewhere and sent patients home with directions to drink as much water as possible. This had nothing to do with infrastructure, just stupidity and selfishness.  
Mistakes were made in Flint that may or may not be justified. Perhaps the appropriate analysis was not made for the decision to switch water sources, but real harm occurred with the lack of action once information on lead levels was known. It is the prolonged exposure to the lead that will be identified as the cause for greatest concerns. I still believe these two incidents in Walkerton and Flint are NOT indicative of our industry yet tarnish the reputation of all of us.

The message we need to reinforce is that municipal drinking water is still, by far, your safest and most economical choice. We need to assure our citizens that we monitor our product 24/7 and will not hesitate to declare a boil water order immediately while we test and ensure all is well.  

As for the infrastructure challenges, we do need the public to be aware of the investments that are required to maintain our systems and ensure the economy and health of our communities. But we must be clear that the options are GOOD water or NO water. BAD water is not an option. The cost of doing nothing is system failure, a collapse or shutdown, leading to no service. The threat of aging pipes is water loss and wasted energy and a loss of is not a threat of contaminated water.  
So continue to drink your water with confidence and support your local leaders in efforts to replace infrastructure with newer, reliable systems, using innovative technologies to reduce energy and long term costs.


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