Water: The slow, steady fight for regulatory reform

May 4, 2006

Dear Friend:

The political and regulatory changes that we fight for can be discouragingly slow – so slow, sometimes, as to be almost imperceptible. And yet, looking back over the course of a decade or two, there is great reason to take heart. That is one of the lessons brought home to me by a study we have just completed.

We produced the study at the request of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, which asked for our help in solving the drinking water problems plaguing aboriginal communities. In particular, the government sought information on how non-native communities had approached similar challenges. What had provincial and municipal governments done to ensure the safety of drinking water? What reforms had worked, and why?

It was a heartening study to work on. It is rare to have an opportunity to step back from a specific campaign and to look at the big picture. Our study reminded me that we have made extraordinary progress.

The study focused on Ontario, where, 15 years ago, water systems regularly threatened the health and safety of consumers. Thousands of operators lacked formal training. Hundreds of plants violated provincial policies. But violators rarely faced penalties, since the policies were largely unenforceable. Consumers, paying some of the lowest rates in the world, wasted vast quantities of water.

In the intervening years, we have worked tirelessly to make our water safe to drink. We have promoted reforms to make utilities more independent, more viable, and more accountable. We have stressed the need for sufficient expertise and sustainable financing, and for tough regulations that are vigorously enforced. We have worked at the local level and at the provincial level, and with parties of every political stripe.

Slowly and incrementally, a veritable revolution has occurred. Operators are now required to undergo formal training and to pass exams. Smaller systems are joining together to access some of the benefits of larger systems. When necessary, they are calling on outside experts to help them solve longstanding problems. Utilities are gradually getting their financial houses in order. Consumers are beginning to bear more of the costs of their consumption. Perhaps most important, laws and regulations ensuring that our water is safe to drink are now legally binding. The Ministry of the Environment is inspecting water systems regularly and is issuing orders against those that hire unqualified operators, provide unsafe water, or fail to regularly sample their water or report their results.

We still have a long way to go. Although performance has improved steadily, dozens of plants still fail to comply. Although more than a thousand previously untrained operators have become certified, training remains a problem for many municipalities. Although the province has passed a law requiring utilities to identify their full costs and to plan how to recover them, the legislation has not been proclaimed. And although more charges are being laid against poorly performing plants, prosecution remains optional and fines remain low.

We can’t rest yet. But we are proud of having accomplished so much in the last 15 years. We are grateful to our donors for helping make possible those accomplishments, and we now ask you for your support to enable us to continue our work.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Brubaker
Executive Director

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