The Water Haller – September 2014 - Courageous Conversations

I attended a half-day workshop on September 4th sponsored by the Ontario Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (OCSI). I attended this event for several reasons – to discuss infrastructure issues, to make new contacts, to witness the OCSI model (more about this later) – but the main reason I attended was because of the name of the event, "Courageous Conversations".

Of all the many events I am invited to each year, this one really made me stop and think. Faced with the tremendous challenges before us for infrastructure renewal, it would be a reasonable response for us to curl up and cry... but we know what is really needed is courageous conversations. We need to question the way we operate, the way we finance, the way we plan, the level of service we provide and the way we charge for services. The best news is we don’t have to be courageous alone.

The OCSI is a fascinating concept. In 2006, six significant organizations formed a coalition to speak for sustainable infrastructure in Ontario. This group not only shares information and ideas among themselves, but provides a united voice to the provincial government. The group includes wastewater (WEAO), water (OWWA & OMWA), public works (OPWA), engineers (MEA), politicians (OGRA), and finance (MFOA). This is a brilliant model. Check them out at  This is a model that each province could consider and I might like to explore at a national level. Many of us are already working together nationally on the Infrastructure Report Card including mayors (FCM), public works (CPWA), construction (CCA), engineers (CSCE, ACEC, Engineers Canada), asset managers (CNAM), finance (CCPPP), water/wastewater (CWWA) and more. Once we get the results of the revised report card, we need to continue this cooperation to convey that information to decision-makers and the public.

Back to their "Courageous" event, this think tank session focussed on defining some of the key terms we use: "infrastructure," "level of service," "sustainable," and "affordable." One of the discussion leaders (provocateurs) was Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star. Hume defined ‘infrastructure’ as "civilization."  I have never heard it explained so succinctly...if we are going to live together, we need infrastructure. He suggested that the word "affordable" is an emotional word, more of a relative term than a clearly quantifiable term. Another provocateur, Leo Gohier of Hamilton, spoke to "sustainability" and that, "if infrastructure is not fully funded, it is not sustainable." He went on to speak about cost-effectiveness is, "doing the right thing, to the right asset, at the right time."

I was pleased to be part of a table that defined "affordable levels of service" as: "the quality of life the community is willing to pay for when presented with the risk and consequences of alternatives." The key to this definition is knowing the consequences of the alternatives – diminished community health with poor quality water or sanitation, weakened community wealth with scarcity of water, and the cost of allowing systems to fail as opposed to proper maintenance and scheduled replacement. CWWA is working with the regional water/wastewater associations across Canada, with WEF and AWWA, to support proper asset management, planning and financing and we are working with a larger U.S. coalition on public attitudes around the value of water.

Some very large decisions need to be made in the coming years. Funds have been announced at the federal level to be matched by provincial and municipal funds. With all the competition for those funds, our challenge in the water/wastewater industry is to ensure that our sector is seen as a priority and gets its appropriate share of those funds...while continuing to work towards our own, long-term, reliable, self-sustaining systems. 


Canadian Water and Wastewater Association