Drinking water: no place for complacency

Elizabeth Brubaker

In Safe Drinking Water Policy for Canada – the latest study in the C.D. Howe Institute’s Water Series – Steve Hrudey warns against complacency among the operators and regulators of water systems. He argues for an approach to water safety that involves “ongoing critical self-examination.”

Hrudey refers favourably to a presentation delivered to a water safety conference sponsored by the International Water Association and the World Health Organization. In the presentation, Australian Richard Walker suggested a high standard: “Every out of spec monitoring result is a call for action.”

What a contrast to our expectations here in Ontario!

In September 2010, when the province’s Chief Drinking Water Inspector released his Annual Report indicating that just 49 per cent of municipal drinking water systems were in full compliance with provincial regulations, he didn’t call for action. Perversely, he expressed pride in the results, saying that they “confirmed that our 700 municipal residential drinking water systems are indeed performing well.” (For more on the Inspector’s report, see my October 1st blog, Rose-coloured glasses… of drinking water.)

Nor did the 1,769 “adverse water quality incidents” reported by the Chief Drinking Water Inspector prompt action at the Environment Ministry, which assured the public that “Ontarians continue to enjoy access to safe, clean drinking water thanks to the province’s strict water quality standards.”

Environment Minster John Wilkinson sounded equally complacent in his Annual Report on Drinking Water, released in November 2010. Wilkinson boasted that “we have some of the best protected drinking water in the world…. The people of Ontario can have confidence in their drinking water thanks to the powerful safety net that we have put in place.” He stressed his pride in system operators and owners, praising their “consistently strong results.”

Hrudey seems unimpressed by such confident assurances, advocating instead a “rigorous and consistent commitment to being self-critical.” He warns, “one critical element of the water safety plan approach is that it requires continuous self-assessment and a commitment to continuous improvement. A blanket conclusion that everything is now under control and improvement is not necessary is wholly inconsistent with that philosophy.”

For more on Hrudey’s study, see my March 11th blog, Drinking water still not safe.

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