Dirty Water
National Post
Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Over the last year or so,

Canada has been repeatedly rocked by headlines announcing the terrible quality of the water supply in First Nations communities. Now, from the Canadian Medical Association Journal comes an investigative report that delivers an abominable sort of "good" news on the equity front:We're not doing such a great job with water quality outside Indian reserves, either.

CMAJ found that there are at least 1,766 boil-water advisories currently in effect in communities across the country, not counting reserves. In some cases, these advisories have been in place for years, suggesting that municipal authorities have simply given up on one of their core responsibilities. "The boil-water advisory is being used as an alternative to [water] treatment," complains Steve Hrudey, an engineering professor from the University of Alberta.

There were just 13 standing advisories in Alberta and 61 in Quebec, but 126 in Saskatchewan, 530 in British Columbia and 679 in Ontario. These data suggest that there is no single explanation for the phenomenon to be sought in business models or pricing practices. Alberta has permitted corporate involvement in potable-water supply and emphasizes pricing that covers the full cost of capital and management. But Quebec seems to succeed about as well with an old-fashioned co-operative system that charges the lowest prices in the country.

Because of the Walkerton coliform deaths in 2000, Ontario is where the most research has been conducted into water-quality management. The failure of the water system there appears to be a slow-motion tragedy of sorts; the provincial water infrastructure was devolved onto municipalities in the 1990s, and when Walkerton suffered a fatal managerial face-plant, everyone else was hit with tough new provincial standards and regulations and consequent compliance costs. That may have created an incentive for some communities to simply give up.

In Alberta, Mr. Hrudey notes, there has been a successful push for municipalities to regionalize their water supplies, install treated pipelines and share the costs of professional water management. Ontario has lagged in following suit, despite the urgings of a 2005 provincial panel that literally drew pictures of a regionalized system for rural municipalities to follow. Ironically, the Walkerton incident may have played a role in making municipalities reluctant to give up control of their water supply -- even where it might be the safest thing to do.

As for B.C., it has always had the highest rates of waterborne bacterial disease in the country. And in remote B.C. communities relying on small-volume riparian sources of fresh water, boiling one's drinking water (or buying it bottled) has always been a good idea. Average prices there per unit of water have traditionally been low by national standards, and there is little water metering, so raising the money for upgrading of the water supply might be as simple as deciding to charge a sensible rate for the stuff.

One thing is certain: Municipalities should not be able to hide behind quasi-permanent "advisories." Safe tap water is one of the great public-health achievements of the 20th century; that achievement should not be hard to defend in the 21st.