Corrupt water

Elizabeth Brubaker

Does Montreal need private water?

For more than 36 hours last week, 1.3 million Montrealers were told not to drink tap water, or to use it for cooking or toothbrushing, without first boiling it. Hospitals and schools shut off water fountains. Cafés stopped making coffee and tea. Stores ran out of bottled water.

The reason for the boil-water advisory? During work at the Atwater filtration plant, the water level in a large reservoir had fallen precipitously, stirring up sediment at the bottom of the reservoir. Murky water from the reservoir was then pumped into pipes supplying much of the city.

It isn’t yet clear why workers lowered the reservoir level so dramatically, or why the yellow-brown water went unnoticed before being distributed. Mayor Applebaum, promising an investigation, said that the problem did not result from a mechanical error – presumably leaving human error as the unspoken cause. Human error would be consistent with fire department division chief Gordon Routley’s explanation to the Montreal Gazette: “I think that’s what they call a ‘whoops’ moment.” [See Update, below.]

More disturbing than the reservoir mishap was the lag of several hours between the discovery of sediment in the water and the issuance of a succession of boil-water advisories. The city issued its first advisory only after residents complained about the colour of their tap water. In a well functioning system, water safety information would flow from the city to its residents, and not in the other direction.

After the boil-water advisory was lifted, Gazette columnist Josh Freed groused that the “we’ve survived a water crisis that turned us all into third-world peasants, boiling our water so we won’t get ‘turista’ without leaving home…. I admit that having to boil my toothbrush water like I usually do in places like Zimbabwe has been a little humiliating.” Likewise reminded of the third world by his water provider, Freed’s colleague Henry Aubin recalled a film about tribes in New Guinea.

Montreal, Aubin mused, is a “hotbed of municipal decline.” That certainly seems true of its water system, plagued by under-investment, poor repair, and, to borrow a phrase from the Globe and Mail, “shaky management.”

In January, the city’s water system made national news when a water main break flooded downtown streets. But major breaks are nothing new. Montreal has long been notorious for the amount of treated water lost from cracked or broken pipes. About 40 percent of the city’s water is wasted in this way, leading the Gazette to call it “the leaky city.”

Montrealers deserve better. But how are they going to get a more effective and efficient water system? Normally, it would make sense to contract out operations and management to private experts. But evidence of corruption in the city’s contracting practices creates suspicion that the process and its results would be compromised. In 2009, the city cancelled a $355-million water meter contract after the city’s auditor general reported irregularities in the tendering process. The Charbonneau corruption inquiry has since heard that the contract was rigged. The inquiry has also heard allegations that the city refused to consider PVC pipes (rather than the more expensive and less durable concrete or iron) for water mains after a manufacturer refused to pay a middleman $150,000 for kickbacks for city staff. More generally, the inquiry has heard that collusion has added up to 30 percent to the costs of public works contracts.

Perhaps it is time to move beyond contracting out and consider outright privatization. A private owner overseen by a competent economic regulator would have no incentive to pay more than necessary for supplies or services. On the contrary: Lacking taxing powers, and able to charge customers only reasonable costs (determined in part by costs for similar services in other jurisdictions), it would bear any excesses itself.

William Watson wrote in the Financial Post last week, “If you want less public-sector corruption, you should have a smaller public sector.” Water may be a good place to start.

– – –

Update: On June 6, Mayor Applebaum attributed the problem at the Atwater plant to a pump failure rather than a “professional error.” In denying human error, the mayor seemed to be forgetting that humans would have been responsible for inspecting and maintaining the malfunctioning pump. The mayor indirectly acknowledged this human role when he promised an expert review of work procedures, better training for workers and managers, more monitoring, and improved communication with the public.

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