Letter to the editor, Toronto Star Re: Water safety mismanagement could mean another Walkerton: Cohn. Studying a tragedy to death won’t safeguard our drinking water, nor save lives, without political will
We support a rigorous dialogue about the sustainability of water infrastructure, but the message of Cohn’s article "Water safety mismanagement could mean another Walkerton" leaves readers with the incorrect and misleading impression that Ontario’s drinking water is unsafe. We may take for granted its availability and low cost. But we have high expectations for its quality, and municipalities across Canada consistently meet this expectation.
Far from simply "studying [the] tragedy to death" as Cohn suggests, the Ontario government has transformed the regulatory framework for water protection since Walkerton. It has developed and implemented a multi-barrier approach of protecting drinking water from "source to tap." Key measures that Cohn failed to acknowledge include the introduction and implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, 2002. This law imposes stringent regulations for drinking water quality parameters. It requires municipalities to have in place a new comprehensive license for all municipal drinking water systems. Beyond regulating the operation of the drinking water systems, this licensing approach makes it the duty of any individuals who have oversight responsibilities for such systems to apply a statutory "Standard of Care" with legal consequences for negligence. The law also imposes requirements for accredited oversight of water quality testing and mandatory inspections.
Cohn also ignores the province’s comprehensive lead testing program, introduced in 2003 under the same law. In addition, Ontario introduced in 2006 and has since implemented the Clean Water Act to create a legally binding regime for protection of drinking water sources.
According to the most recent report of the Chief Drinking Water Inspector, in 2014-15 "99.8 per cent of 642,373 drinking water tests from regulated drinking water systems met Ontario's Drinking Water Quality Standards." But readers don’t have to take government’s word for it; the most recent Drinking Water Report Card of legal non-profit Ecojustice gives Ontario an A for "implementing the most ambitious source water protection program in Canada and has some of the country’s strongest treatment, testing, operator training and public reporting standards."
It’s certainly true that we need to look at ways to change our approach to planning and funding water infrastructure. We need more consistent and stable pricing regimes that support regular investment in system maintenance. But we also need to focus on more than pipes and concrete to make sure we are investing in the right systems. We need to fully implement programs for water and energy efficiency and optimization to make the best use of existing infrastructure, look to green infrastructure solutions, and enable new technologies to explore water reuse and the recovery of nutrients from wastewater. Such an approach will provide the same or better service, not to mention more resilient systems, very likely at lower costs and lower energy use.
In 2010, the province passed the Water Opportunities Act. It is precisely due to Ontario’s comprehensive and stringent regulatory regime that the province was able to start enabling new and innovative approaches to water management, and to build on the strengths of homegrown technology and expertise.
We need everyone engaged in the demand for future-ready water infrastructure that is resilient, innovative, and financially sustainable. Rigorous standards are a prerequisite for success. Far from complacency, what has set Ontario apart in the years since the tragedy in Walkerton are these standards, a comprehensive approach to source water protection, and a commitment to innovation.
Brenda Lucas, President, Southern Ontario Water Consortium
Robert Haller, Executive Director, Canadian Water and Wastewater Association