In a new study, drinking water expert Steve Hrudey warns that many Canadian water systems remain unsafe. More than a decade after the Walkerton tragedy, Hrudey reports, Canada remains “vulnerable to future water-quality failures, most likely in smaller systems. The problem is not that numerical water safety criteria are inadequately stringent; the documented failures have been caused by an inability to operate water systems effectively, pointing to inadequate competence.”
Hrudey cites the number of boil water advisories in place as evidence that “Canada clearly has a tangible water safety issue, at least in smaller communities, long after Walkerton.” He also notes that many communities continue to “employ water operators with the lowest level of training and financial compensation that the community can get away with.”
Hrudey, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine who advised the Walkerton Inquiry and sat on the Expert Panel on Safe Drinking Water for First Nations, identifies a number of problems with municipal provision of water services. Placing responsibility for drinking water upon municipalities is, he writes, a “structural flaw.” Small and medium-sized communities often lack the financial capacity and the technical resources required to ensure water safety.
Hrudey also points out that many systems are too small to operate efficiently or effectively. He recommends that provinces encourage consolidation of smaller systems into larger, more viable operations. But consolidation, he admits, will not solve all of our problems. Specifically, it “does not address the need for competence in maintaining local distribution systems. Distribution system failures have been responsible for at least four fatal outbreaks in the past 20 years.”
There is no getting around it: We need to ensure operational competence in every system. “The bottom line for assuring safe drinking water for Canadians is ensuring that those engaged in the process of delivering and regulating drinking water are knowledgeable, competent and committed.”
Hrudey advocates a “‘know your own system’ water safety plan approach” – an approach that is being implemented around the world but is still largely unknown in Canada. Such an approach focusses on ensuring that operators fully understand their own systems, the specific contaminant challenges they face, and the capabilities and limitations of the mechanisms in place to deal with these challenges. It requires that operators’ training and compensation reflect their enormous responsibilities. And it requires that effective support systems be in place so that operators can call for help when needed.
In his study, Hrudey stays away from the question of whether private companies should operate water systems, saying only that ownership “is not the critical test.” Certainly some of the problems he identifies could be solved by greater private-sector involvement. A number of water services companies have the financial capacity and technical resources that many municipalities lack. Such companies can provide the supplementary training and expert back-up that operators require. Furthermore, contracting with water companies can provide some of the economies of scale and increases in capacity that are sought through consolidation.
Hrudey’s report, Safe Drinking Water Policy for Canada – Turning Hindsight into Foresight, was published last week by the C.D. Howe Institute.