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Glass Half Empty for Water Safety

New funding for drinking water system upgrades are a good start. But not nearly enough.

By Randy Christensen 24 Feb 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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Imagine a car manufacturer rolling out a splashy new advertising campaign to announce in 2005 that its cars will now come equipped with --- hold your breath --- seat belts!

Such an announcement no doubt would cause bewilderment…and some well-deserved ridicule.  The same could be said about the B.C. government’s recent high profile announcement of additional funding for drinking water system upgrades

While a positive step, this pre-election bon-bon aimed squarely at municipalities instead highlights the long-absence of such funding and the continuing and dangerous lack of other necessary drinking water protections.

Funding for drinking water systems is great, but what about treatment and testing standards?  What about protecting drinking water sources in the first place?  What about making the Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality binding in B.C.?

Ontario is way ahead

Back in 1999, the Auditor General or B.C. called for the implementation of something called the “multi-barrier” approach, which requires source water protection, rigorous water treatment, testing to ensure the absence of contaminants and well designed and maintained distribution systems.

The current government has even embraced this concept, but only as a public relations tool.  The Ministry of Health promised “source to tap” protection, but at the regulatory level nothing has changed.  This is simply a case of government throwing more money at a problem without undertaking the necessary, parallel reforms to solve the problem.

Back in Ontario, things look dramatically different.  The Walkerton Inquiry endorsed the multi-barrier approach, laying out dozens of recommendations for real protection of drinking water.  But instead of just promising drinking water protection, the Government of Ontario has introduced strong treatment, testing and contaminant standards.  Currently, the Ontario government is undertaking an initiative to create source water protection, which will complete the implementation of the multi-barrier approach.

In B.C., the overall record of government in protecting drinking water quality could best be described as one step forward and two steps back.  An earlier announcement regarding new “groundwater regulations” amounted to rules that those who drill wells must be qualified and that the wells must be capped upon closure.  Essential stuff, but the only rational reaction is why on earth did it take so long?  The importance of protecting wells was understood millennia ago.

What should be done

The B.C. Government has taken real, positive steps to ensure better public notification of testing results and potential contamination events.  But a few simple, easy measures would greatly improve this system.  In this day and age, information can be made quickly available using the Internet.   It is no longer good enough to simply require that if a person makes a request, some bureaucrat must give out the information.

Moreover, the government is relaxing regulations and standards regarding land-use activities, which will only increase the risk to drinking water.   For all the human error compounding the tragedy in Walkerton, the initial cause of the seven deaths and thousands of illnesses was a livestock operation too close to a well.  We now have seatbelts in the car, but no road maintenance.

The recent announcement amounts to a pot of cash for municipalities in the run-up to a provincial election.  The real work to protect drinking water remains undone.

The first step the government should take is to require (in regulation) that drinking water providers must meet the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Standards.  The Guidelines set out contaminant limitations for a wide range of microbiological, chemical and physical parameters.

The government should also ensure that water providers adhere to an appropriate testing schedule to ensure the safety of drinking water.   Enhanced treatment – beyond simply dumping chlorine in the water – should be mandatory.  Finally, each public water source should have a source water protection assessment and plan that ensures the purity of the water we drink.

If these steps were taken, the Government would have an announcement worth celebrating.

Randy Christensen is a staff lawyer with Sierra Legal Defence Fund.


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