Ontario’s complacency on drinking water unwarranted

November 26, 2009

(This blog is the fourth – and last – in a series on the Ontario Environment Minister’s Annual Report on Drinking Water for 2009.)

In his Annual Report on Drinking Water, released last week, Ontario’s Environment Minister urges consumers to choose tap water as their drinking water, assuring them that it is safe and of high quality. He boasts of the last year’s drinking water quality test results, noting that 99.85 percent of the tests of municipal residential drinking water systems met strict standards.

Not so fast, Mr. Gerretsen! Such complacency is both unwarranted and dangerous.

In 2007-08 (the last period for which information is available), 199 municipal residential drinking water systems exceeded provincial parameters for microbiological contamination at least once. Of these, 94 did so on multiple occasions. In addition, 83 systems exceeded chemical parameters. Of these, 67 exceeded the parameters a number of times.

Two-hundred-thirty-four smaller systems (such as those serving schools, camps, and hospitals) also exceeded microbiological or chemical parameters. Another 109 non-municipal year-round residential systems exceeded these parameters.

Combine these sobering water quality test results with the equally sobering facility inspection results: Only half of the province’s municipal drinking water systems passed inspections with perfect grades. Three-hundred-fifty systems failed to comply with provincial regulations. Inspectors identified a number of problems, including improper sizing and improper installation of equipment; inadequate sampling and reporting; unsatisfactory operations and maintenance manuals; and unacceptable flow rates.

Despite widespread performance problems, the province prosecuted relatively few municipal scoff-laws, obtaining convictions against only 13 over the course of the year. The fines obtained averaged a very modest $12,077.

Mr. Gerretsen wants to “make sure Ontario’s drinking water is among the best protected in the world.” To earn that distinction, he and our water systems are going to have to do much better.

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