Ontario’s drinking water: Should you really be confident?

Elizabeth Brubaker

In his latest report, Ontario’s Chief Drinking Water Inspector urges readers to have confidence in the quality of their drinking water. But such confidence may be unwarranted. More than a third of Ontario’s municipal systems failed at least one water quality test in the last year. More than a third failed to obtain perfect facility inspection ratings. And almost 60 percent experienced “adverse water quality incidents.”

The Chief Drinking Water Inspector’s Annual Report for 2010-11, released last week, overflows with reassuring language. The Inspector boasts that “Ontario’s drinking water is among the best protected in the world” and assures readers that “our safety net is working.” The words “confidence” or “confident” appear 11 times in the text of the report.

The Inspector measures utility performance in three ways. First, he looks at the number of drinking water samples meeting provincial quality standards. He reports that 99.87 percent of municipal water quality tests met standards between April 1, 2010 and March 31, 2011. Despite his claim that the results “demonstrate a continued upward trend in performance improvement,” this number is slightly lower than the previous year, when 99.88 percent of the tests met standards.

The results are more troubling when broken down by the number of municipal water systems rather than the number of samples. A total of 244 municipal systems – 36 percent of the municipal systems in the province – failed water quality tests at least once over the course of the year. Of these, 198 failed microbiological tests, and 72 failed chemical tests. Just 64 percent of the municipal systems met all water quality tests – down from 65 percent last year.

Smaller systems also experienced problems. Of those referred to as “non-municipal year-round residential systems” (such as those serving mobile home parks), 103 violated water quality standards at least once during the year. Another 178 “systems serving designated facilities” (such as health care centres or children’s camps) violated standards at least once.

The second tool the Inspector uses to measure utility performance is the annual facility inspection. Although inspection results have improved from last year, caution is still in order. Inspectors found “areas of non-compliance” at 239 municipal systems. Most often, the operators of these systems ran their treatment equipment improperly, failed to record data, did not adequately disinfect their water, or did not follow proper procedures when something went wrong.

Although the Inspector calls the overall performance ratings “very good,” he does at least briefly acknowledge the need for improvement, referring in passing to “our commitment to continuous improvement, as we strive toward our goal of achieving 100 per cent inspection ratings for all Ontario municipal residential drinking water systems.”

A third measure of performance is the adverse water quality incident (AWQI) count. AWQIs include violations of water quality standards, system licences, provincial orders, and operational parameters (such as low chlorine, high turbidity, or equipment failure). According to the Inspector, 404 municipal systems reported 1,562 AWQIs reflecting 1,717 different problems in 2010-2011. In addition, 177 non-municipal year-round residential drinking water systems reported 445 AWQIs reflecting 546 problems, and 373 systems serving designated facilities reported 630 AWQIs reflecting 759 problems.

Do 3,022 problems in one year not undermine the Inspector’s claim that “you can have confidence in the quality of your drinking water”? For a cautious consumer, his claims don’t hold water.

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The Chief Drinking Water Inspector’s Annual Report 2010-2011, released on August 8, 2012, can be found here. The Appendices to the report, showing water quality results and inspection ratings for each system, can be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Ontario’s drinking water: Should you really be confident?

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