October 1, 2010
Ontario’s Chief Drinking Water Inspector is looking at municipal drinking water systems through rose-coloured glasses. In his latest annual report, released on Wednesday, John Stager boasts that he is “proud” of the systems’ performance. And what is he proud of? He explains, “We found that 49 per cent of these systems achieved a 100 per cent inspection rating, which means that they were in full compliance with the regulations.”
The guardian of our drinking water should be alarmed – not proud – that more than half of our 700 municipal water systems violate provincial regulations. Inspectors found a number of serious problems with these non-compliant systems, including improper operation of equipment, insufficient documentation of procedures, and inadequate maintenance of chlorine residuals in distribution systems – key to ensuring that drinking water does not become contaminated after leaving the treatment plant.
Mr. Stager’s misplaced confidence reveals itself in other parts of his report as well. In bragging that Ontario’s drinking water is “of high quality” and “among the best protected in the world,” he notes that 99.87 per cent of the water quality test results met Ontario’s health based standards. A more prudent guardian might have focussed on the failures rather than the successes. One-hundred-ninety-eight municipal systems exceeded microbiological parameters – those for E. coli and total coliforms – at least once during the reporting year. Furthermore, 47 systems exceeded chemical parameters, such as those for trihalomethanes, fluoride, selenium, and nitrogen/nitrates/nitrites. In a departure from previous reports, Mr. Stager does not disclose how many of these systems violated standards multiple times.
Mr. Stager does disclose that 452 municipal systems reported 1,769 “adverse water quality incidents” over the course of the year. In addition to microbiological and chemical contamination, the incidents included unacceptable levels of sodium, turbidity, and chlorine, and problems with pressure, UV dosage, watermains, and equipment.
In all, Mr. Stager tells us five times how proud he is of our drinking water. But the data in this report should prompt a call to action rather than a pat on the back. Our Chief Drinking Water Inspector should be more vigilant. Pride goeth before a fall.