Poorly performing Cdn water systems endangering public health, environment

Eric Laganis
EcoLog
May 27, 2011

According to a new report by the C.D. Howe Institute, many municipal drinking water and wastewater systems across Canada are threatening public health and the environment because municipal water and wastewater utilities lack the expertise and financial resources to adequately operate them.

The report – “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Alternative Financing and Delivery of Water and Wastewater Services” – noted that Canada’s municipal drinking water and wastewater systems are performing poorly because municipal water and wastewater utilities do not have the planning, management and operations skills needed to maintain them. They also lack the managerial and financial skills, as well as incentives, to oversee the large capital improvements that many systems will require.

These problems will intensify “as infrastructure ages, as population growth spurs demand, as climate change stresses water supply and infrastructure, as the costs of electricity and other inputs rise, and as the Internet makes it harder to hide utility failings,” said the report.

As a result, municipal drinking water and wastewater systems are negatively affecting public health and the environment.

For example, more than 350 of Ontario’s 700 municipal drinking water systems violated the province’s water quality or operating standards in 2008 and 2009, said the report.

These violations were attributed to, among other things, improper operation of equipment, insufficient documentation of procedures, and inadequate maintenance of chlorine residuals in distribution systems.

As well, 198 systems exceeded the limits for total coliforms and E. coli bacteria in treated water, and 47 systems exceeded the limits for chemical contaminants.

Wastewater systems are in “even worse shape,” as they are among Canada’s largest sources of pollution, said the report.

The report noted that municipal wastewater systems discharge more than 150 billion litres of raw sewage and 1.35 trillion litres of only partially treated sewage into waterways every year.

As well, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) found that 949 of the more than 3,700 wastewater systems in Canada need to be upgraded to provide “secondary” treatment, which is the minimum acceptable level of treatment in the U.S., said the report.

Of those 949 systems, CCME determined that 399 pose “high risks to the environment.”

To improve the performance of municipal drinking water and wastewater systems, the financial and operational frameworks of municipal water and wastewater utilities need to be reformed, said Elizabeth Brubaker, executive director of Environment Probe and author of the report.

These reforms should include introducing competition for drinking water and wastewater services and taking steps to attract more private expertise and capital investment.

Brubaker told EcoLog News that private water companies have the expertise and financial resources to help municipal water and wastewater utilities adequately operate drinking water and wastewater systems because they invest heavily in research and development.

As well, private water companies are held more accountable for meeting water quality standards than public sector organizations, she said.

To encourage municipalities to seek competitive offers for drinking water and wastewater construction and operation, the report recommended that upper levels of governments:

* reduce grants for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure
* legislate full-cost pricing of drinking water and wastewater treatment
* publish information on utility performance
* enforce laws governing public health and the environment.

To get the most out of their partnerships with private water companies, municipalities should use competitive procurement processes and vigorously enforce performance-based contracts, said the report.

Contents of this article in EcoLog News are copyright and reproduction in whole or in part by any means is strictly forbidden without the express written permission of EcoLog.

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