Troubled waters: Ontario’s non-compliant drinking water systems

November 14, 2010

Every year, the Ministry of the Environment inspects all of the municipal drinking water systems in Ontario. It evaluates the safety of the systems and calculates the risks they pose. Systems that comply with all provincial regulations earn an inspection rating of 100 percent. Non-compliant systems receive lower ratings. In 2008-09 – the last year for which comprehensive data are available – just under half of the systems received perfect inspection ratings.

Tyler Owens looked into the systems that got the worst inspection ratings in 2008-09. Thirty-seven systems – serving a total of 291,520 people – had ratings below 90 percent. Tyler compiled a list of the systems, including their location, the name of their operator, the number of people they serve, and their inspection rating. He also created a map of the systems. For purposes of comparison, Devin Owens compiled a list of the systems that received poor inspection ratings the previous year. Thirty-five systems had ratings below 90 percent. Seven systems had ratings below 90 percent both years.


It is sobering to see that many of the non-compliant plants are run by operators with extensive experience. Of the 37 systems with the worst ratings in 2008-09, 14 are run by municipalities. Another 14 are run by the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) – the Crown Agency that operates hundreds of municipal water facilities around the province. And nine are run by private water companies.

These figures suggest that it’s not just a lack of operating expertise that causes systems to perform poorly. Even the most expert operators can only do so much with old or substandard infrastructure, and with inadequate water revenues. Municipalities are wise to seek outside operators for their troubled systems. But they need to do more: They need to charge consumers the full costs of making the systems sustainable, invest in the necessary infrastructure, and then demand perfect performance from their operators.

The good news is that at least 32 of the 37 systems that got especially bad inspection ratings in 2008-09 have improved since then. Seven of the systems passed later inspections with flying colours, earning ratings of 100 percent. Another 25 systems improved, although they are not yet perfect. One system received a worse rating.The inspection results for four systems have not yet been updated.

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