New report, same old problems

Elizabeth Brubaker

Ontario’s latest drinking water report is out, and the news isn’t good. But you wouldn’t know it from reading the introduction. The province’s Chief Drinking Water Inspector uses words like “pleased” and “proud” and boasts of “strong performance results.”

Dig deeper into the report, and that confidence seems misplaced. Indeed, the report, like its predecessors, reveals wide-spread performance problems at drinking water systems across the province.

Performance is typically measured in two ways: Treated water is tested to ensure that it meets microbiological, chemical, and other standards, and systems are inspected to ensure that they meet requirements for training, documentation, and performance.

During the last year (from April 2009 through March 2010), 239 systems failed microbiological or chemical tests at least once, and 21 systems did so frequently. Samples from 173 of these systems exceeded microbiological limits, and samples from 89 exceeded chemical limits.

Water quality problems not caught in the above test results may show up in “adverse water quality incidents,” or AWQIs. The report sums up the AWQIs from the year: “A total of 412 municipal residential drinking water systems reported 1,585 AWQIs, based on 1,706 adverse test results. Microbiological exceedances accounted for 23.1 per cent of these, while 17.7 per cent were chemical test results, and 59.2 per cent were for other parameters. The ‘other’ category includes high sodium, turbidity, low chlorine, low pressure, low ultraviolet voltage dosage, water main breaks and equipment failure.”

Some of the latter problems would be found during on-site system inspections. Inspections revealed violations of provincial standards at 287 systems. Inspectors identified several areas that frequently required improvement, including operating treatment and chlorination equipment, having up-to-date manuals on site, and following proper procedures regarding adverse water quality incidents.

It is true, as the Chief Inspector points out, that the latest results are better than those of the previous year. Our systems are making progress. But the progress is modest, and slow. Rather than emphasizing his “confidence in the quality and safety” of our water, the Chief Inspector should be demanding full compliance, now.

The Chief Drinking Water Inspector’s Annual Report 2009-2010, released on March 23, 2011, can be found here. The Appendices to the report, showing water quality results and inspection ratings for each system, can be found here.

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