Ontario’s drinking water report: Great news, or a sober warning?

Elizabeth Brubaker

In her first annual report, Ontario’s new Chief Drinking Water Inspector assures readers that the province’s drinking water is among the best protected and the safest in the world. “Our strong and consistent performance,” she writes, “is great news.”

But should we really be celebrating? Thirty-five percent of Ontario’s municipal systems failed at least one water quality test in the last year. Forty percent failed to obtain perfect facility inspection ratings. And 58 percent experienced “adverse water quality incidents.” Such results suggest that Ontario’s municipal systems need work, not praise.

Although Chief Inspector Susan Lo is new to the post, her Annual Report for 2011-2012 follows the pattern set in previous years – complacent words masking a disturbing reality.

Like her predecessor, Ms. Lo measures utility performance in three ways. First, she looks at the number of drinking water samples meeting provincial quality standards. She reports that 99.87 percent of municipal water quality tests met standards between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012. But readers shouldn’t be too reassured by this percentage, which is due more to the extraordinary number of tests than to the reliability of our drinking water systems. The troubling fact is that 706 samples from municipal systems violated standards over the course of the year.

The results are still more troubling when broken down by the number of municipal water systems rather than the number of samples. A total of 238 systems – 35 percent of the municipal systems in the province – failed water quality tests at least once during the year. Of these, 186 failed microbiological tests, and 83 failed chemical tests. Just 65 percent of the municipal systems met all water quality tests.

Smaller systems also experienced problems. Of those referred to as “non-municipal year-round residential systems” (such as those serving mobile home parks), 101 violated water quality standards at least once during the year. Another 220 “systems serving designated facilities” (such as health care centres or children’s camps) violated standards at least once. Altogether, there were 1,350 unacceptable drinking water test results across the province. This is not “great news.”

A second measure of performance is the Adverse Water Quality Incident (AWQI) count. AWQIs include violations of water quality standards, system licences, and operational parameters (such as low chlorine, high turbidity, or equipment problems). According to the Inspector, 389 municipal systems reported 1,402 AWQIs reflecting 1,603 different problems in 2011-2012. In addition, 180 non-municipal year-round residential drinking water systems reported 412 AWQIs reflecting 489 problems, and 476 systems serving designated facilities reported 736 AWQIs reflecting 828 problems. Another 1,335 “small drinking water systems” reported 1,766 AWQIs. Combined, AWQIs for all of these systems reflected an alarming total of at least 4,686 problems in just one year. These are clearly not among the “many successes” that the Inspector trumpets in her report.

The third tool the Inspector uses to measure utility performance is the annual facility inspection. Staff from the Ministry of Environment found “non-compliance issues” at 270 municipal systems in 2011-2012. In other words, 40 percent of the municipal systems in Ontario did not fully comply with provincial regulatory requirements. The operators of some of these systems ran their treatment equipment improperly. Others were working with out-of-date operating and maintenance manuals. Others did not adequately disinfect their water. And others did not take appropriate action when something went wrong.

Although the Inspector gives a nod to the need for “continuous improvement,” these results are in fact worse than the previous year’s: In 2010-2011, 239 systems – 35 percent – had compliance issues. Given both the results themselves and the trend toward greater non-compliance, it is bizarre for the Inspector to call these inspection results “excellent.”

Ontarians deserve less comforting rhetoric … and more real improvement.

***

The Chief Drinking Water Inspector’s Annual Report 2011-2012, released on December 5, 2013, 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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