Across Canada, 949 sewage facilities need upgrades to help them meet internationally accepted standards of treatment. The Department of the Environment calls sewage systems one of Canada’s "largest sources of pollution" and acknowledges that the negative impacts of sewage pollution have been understood for decades. It is now proposing national standards for sewage system effluent.
Recent allegations concerning the management of Hamilton’s water and wastewater system are being investigated. It would be in keeping with the principles of accountability to wait until all investigations are complete before dismissing them and rewarding the system and its managers. Yet in March, the federal and provincial governments announced $200 million in grants for upgrades to Hamilton’s wastewater system. And this week, it was announced that Toronto has hired the target of several of the allegations as its new director of water treatment and supply.
On March 31, the board of Victoria’s Capital Regional District (CRD) approved a business plan for the funding and procurement of new sewage treatment facilities. Unfortunately, the board decided that most – if not all – of the facilities will be publicly financed and operated.
Some food consumers, in an effort to contribute to environmental stewardship, are choosing to eat food produced closer to home. How does this practice stack up, environmentally?
Yesterday, Ontario legislators debated a private member’s bill that would transform the way water and wastewater services are organized, financed, and regulated. Bill 237, the Sustainable Water and Waste Water Systems Improvement and Maintenance Act (SWIM), would require metering and full cost recovery, promote consolidation of smaller systems, encourage private sector involvement in service provision, and establish an economic regulator to oversee water and wastewater utilities across the province. The bill passed Second Reading and was referred to the Standing Committee on General Government for review.
The Conference Board of Canada has joined the growing ranks of those endorsing full-cost pricing of water and wastewater services. In Improving Infrastructure Management: Municipal Investments in Water and Wastewater, the Conference Board points out that much of Canada’s water and sewage infrastructure is old and due for replacement – work that will cost many tens of billions of dollars. In order to tackle their infrastructure deficits, municipalities will need stable sources of revenue. Instead of waiting for grants, municipalities should rely on water revenues: "Consumers must pay for every unit of water they consume, and the price paid must reflect the supply cost."
In his Annual Report on Drinking Water, Ontario’s Environment Minister urges consumers to choose tap water as their drinking water, assuring them that it is safe and of high quality. He boasts of the last year’s drinking water quality test results, noting that 99.85 percent of the tests of municipal residential drinking water systems met strict standards. Not so fast, Mr. Gerretsen! Such complacency is both unwarranted and dangerous.
In his Annual Report on Drinking Water, Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen claims that, through the Financial Plans Regulation, the province is "ensuring that all system owners take the first step in planning for the long-term financial sustainability of their drinking water systems." Unfortunately, the Financial Plans Regulation, which was developed in 2007 and will go into effect in 2010, will do little to make drinking water systems financially sustainable. The regulation requires municipalities to prepare financial plans for their systems. But these plans need not ensure that municipalities price water services in order to recover their full costs from their customers.
A brief reference to Microbial Source Tracking appears in the Annual Report on Drinking Water released last week by Ontario’s Minister of the Environment. Researchers using this exciting new technology recently identified agriculture as the dominant source of E. coli in southeastern Lake Huron.
"Ontario is a leader in protecting drinking water." So claims the headline accompanying last week’s release of the Environment Minister’s Annual Report on Drinking Water. But it seems that Minister Gerretsen has confused rhetoric with leadership. His report is strong only on the former.
Yesterday, at a conference on renewing Ontario’s infrastructure, Colin Saunders, the Utilities Manager for Brockton, expressed great satisfaction over his municipality’s partnership with a private water and wastewater operator. Brockton, which includes the town of Walkerton, is reassured by the firm’s expertise and its large pool of trained staff. It is impressed by quality control programs that exceed those required by the province. And it is delighted by the significant cost savings offered by the firm.
The 2008 Environmental Compliance Reports have been posted on the Ontario Ministry of Environment web site, and the news is not good. Reports of non-compliance at 102 municipal sewage facilities fill 111 pages. Some of the province’s biggest cities – Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, London – show up in the reports.
Toronto’s sewage woes were in the news last week. The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, and the Toronto Star all ran stories about legal charges arising from a sewage bypass at Toronto’s Ashbridges Bay treatment plant. But the real story here isn’t that charges have been laid. The real story is that charges should be laid far more often.
In a speech last week to the Empire Club of Canada, Preston Manning addressed looming water shortages in southern Alberta. He called for "a provincial policy requiring Albertans to meter and measure the use of every drop of water consumed in the province and the attachment of a price to that water to conserve and allocate it efficiently."
Environment Minister Jim Prentice has recently expressed serious concerns about sewage pollution across Canada. But the government’s purported commitment to cleaning up sewage polluting seems to conflict with recent actions it has taken on the West Coast. In two cases in the last two years, the government has stayed charges laid under the Fisheries Act by citizens determined to clean up sewage pollution.
The Reason Foundation’s Annual Privatization Report 2009, released in August, provides a good snap shot of private-sector involvement in American water and wastewater utilities. Some highlights:
• Public Works Financing reports that 1,336 government agencies contracted out some part of their water or wastewater utility operations in 2008.
• Governments appear to be satisfied with their outsourcing arrangements. In 2008, 95 percent of the water industry contracts up for renewal were renewed with the incumbent contractor, and five percent went to a competitor. Just five percent reverted to municipal operations.
A coalition of environmental organizations and water associations is calling on Ontario to encourage volume-based water pricing to promote conservation.
H2Ontario: A Blueprint for a Comprehensive Water Conservation Strategy, released in August, calls for a "market transformation" that will embed in the economy "the right signals" for citizens, businesses, and communities. It urges the province to do three things to bring about such a transformation: mandate meters; move towards full-cost and volume-based pricing; and increase water charges for water users.
A recent poll by Circle of Blue found that 65 percent of the Canadians surveyed were very concerned about the lack of safe drinking water. And 82 percent agreed that solving Canada’s drinking water problems will require significant help from companies.
Every year, Ontario’s Chief Drinking Water Inspector produces a report on the province’s water systems. The current report (for April 2007 – March 2008) came out in June. Despite the Inspector’s assurances to the contrary, the report includes much to be concerned about.
Several contributors to Policy Options (July-August 2009) dismiss concerns about bulk water exports as largely unfounded. Harry Swain calls fears of US appropriation of Canadian water "largely illusory if only because both we and the Americans price water so cheaply that it cannot bear the cost of shipping or pumping." Frédéric Lasserre maintains that large-scale water export "proposals are not a real cause for concern because of the evolution of the demand and the poor return on investment they offer."