Problems and Solutions: Water Quality

Drinking Water Quality

The Walkerton Inquiry established a comprehensive set of research papers and stakeholder views on issues related to the safety of Ontario's drinking water. As a result of Walkerton and subsequent events, the Ontario public has a high sensitivity to water-related issues, and several new regulations and policy developments have been implemented. New funding has been committed by the province to municipalities to review the state of drinking water treatment plants throughout Ontario, and source protection studies are under way to ensure that potential problems are identified and addressed. The Ontario Government has also consulted the public on the introduction of a Safe Drinking Water Act.

Large municipal drinking water treatment systems in Ontario generally meet all applicable standards and guidelines, whereas smaller systems lack both the technological sophistication and the availability of highly trained personnel. It is these systems where the most immediate threats exist to human health. Larger systems, however, face serious funding problems as water and sewage treatment infrastructure ages and deteriorates. This deterioration was documented in a 1996 report by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy titled, Water and Wastewater Services in Canada, which noted that:

Canada's water and wastewater system is under pressure: the infrastructure --water and wastewater treatment facilities, sewers, supply lines ... is severely deteriorating, primarily due to shortages of public funding. If the decline continues, the health of the country's water resources will suffer. At the same time, due to subsidized and below-cost pricing for water and wastewater services, innovative environmental technologies that conserve water resources are failing to find a market.15

The National Round Table report noted that the root of the problem is that Canada has the lowest consumer prices for water and wastewater services in the industrialized world, but next to the highest rate of per capita use. The National Round Table concluded that Canada's water and wastewater system will have to move toward full-cost, user-pay principles, taking account of all externalities, just to meet basic infrastructure requirements. One benefit of this funding approach would be an increased demand for eco-efficient environmental technologies.

The cost of rehabilitating existing water and sewer infrastructure in the Toronto-Related Region under "Business-As-Usual" conditions will be immense. The total cost of such infrastructure has been estimated at $33.5 billion over the period to 2031, of which about four-fifths ($26.9 billion) would be required for system rehabilitation, renewal and upgrading, and the remainder ($6.6 billion) for growth-related investments. These cost-estimates do take additional urban infill growth into account. Also, in some cases infill growth can be accommodated without placing additional demands on the system, because it occurs on lands that are already serviced and had previous (often industrial) water-using units on them, and/or are in areas where population levels have declined due to falling household sizes.16

In Pollution Probe's opinion, Ontario is well on its way to addressing the concerns related to ensuring the safety of drinking water, at least at the level of the treatment systems themselves.

The longer-term issue of funding the upgrading of drinking water treatment systems has not yet been resolved. Bill 155, The Sustainable Water and Sewage Systems Act, has been proposed to empower municipalities to raise the necessary funding based on user-pay principles. This Bill could be an important part of ensuring the ongoing integrity of drinking water systems. The Bill has recently gone through second reading, and offers the possibility of resolving the funding problem, which as noted by the National Round Table, is a root cause of deterioration of the existing infrastructure.

The Central Ontario Zone Smart Growth Strategy Sub-Panel should highlight the need for adequate funding for drinking water treatment and sewer systems and support the development of full-cost pricing and user-pay principles, at least for large municipalities. Equity adjustments will be needed to allow smaller municipalities to meet their system upgrading and maintenance needs.

15. National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. 1996. Water and Wastewater Services in Canada (A State of the Debate report), p. 3.
16. Neptis Foundation. 2002. Toronto-Related Region Futures Study - Draft Interim Report: Implications of Business-As-Usual Development. Prepared for the Neptis Foundation by IBI Group in association with Dillon Consulting Limited (June 2002). p.34