Pure water runs short in Canada, the land of lakes

Hundreds of towns across Canada are under orders to boil their drinking water.

Another springtime in Canada, another water crisis. In North Battleford, Saskatchewan, a parasite in the water supply is blamed for one death and hundreds of illnesses, and residents are under orders to boil their tap water.

It's just the latest in a spate of outbreaks over recent years, calling attention to Canada's aging water treatment infrastructure.

Almost no province is free of this problem, which is associated more often with developing countries than industrialized. Boil-water advisories are in effect in 220 communities in British Columbia and more than 250 in Newfoundland. A study in December found that more than 645 municipal water plants in Ontario fail to meet standards. In Quebec, 542 water-pollution advisories were issued last year.

Perhaps most striking is a recent poll conducted for the National Post (Toronto). In this nation of lakes and rivers, home to 20 percent of the world's fresh water, 46 percent of Canadians feel unsafe drinking from their own taps.

The causes for the contamination are complex. They range from inadequate treatment facilities to agricultural runoff seeping into drinking-water supplies. But a growing number of people here think the main solution is simple: legally enforceable national water quality standards.

"We need a whole new regime," says water-policy specialist Sarah Miller, "not one based on 19th century technology and ideas of public health."

Currently, water systems across the country cause confusion about accountability. Responsibility for water treatment lies with municipal governments, leading to a patchwork of local regulations that are hard to enforce. Increasingly, water testing is contracted out to private labs. And many communities like North Battleford can't afford the multimillion-dollar investment necessary to upgrade their facilities.

In the US, the federal government has jurisdiction over water-quality standards. Here, there are voluntary water-quality guidelines worked out between Ottawa and the provinces.

But guidelines alone weren't enough for Dauphin, Manitoba, which was under a boil-water order for more than three years, from 1996 to 1999, because of giardia contamination.

"It was a terrible thing to go through," says Jim Puffalt, who is city administrator of Dauphin, and whose wife became ill at the time. "There would be signs in motels saying, 'Don't drink the water'.... It was something you don't expect to see in Canada."

"We live in this huge space with all this water," says Ms. Miller, who is with the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) in Toronto. "We have a wealth of water, but it's shameful how little attention we pay to that wealth."

A growing number Canadians are paying attention, however. Environmental groups, members of parliament, and concerned citizens are calling for change.

Last spring, an E. coli outbreak in rural Walkerton, Ontario, killed seven and sickened thousands. Now, a group called Concerned Walkerton Citizens is pressing for action. "They don't want [financial] compensation - they want to see profound systemic change," says Miller, of CELA, which is advising them.

Politicians of all stripes are calling for change, too.

Liberal Sen. Jerry Grafstein wants drinking water to be covered under the federal food and drug act. Many are demanding American-style enforceable national water-quality standards and "massive" federal aid for infrastructure.

Last week, an opposition motion was passed in the House of Commons calling for the federal government to pursue national mandatory drinking-water standards. But some say "mandatory" isn't enough. A key point in the effectiveness of US water-quality standards is that they are also legally enforceable.

"Citizens need a right to sue" when public systems fail, says Ms. Miller.

In the United States, both legal standards and infusion of federal moneys are credited for enabling communities to meet national standards, according to The National League of Cities.

Other recommended changes include higher water-quality standards; more effective measures to keep contaminants out of water systems in the first place (e.g. by keeping cows out of rivers that feed reservoirs); and water rates that encourage conservation.

Another key question is whether communities will be able to meet those standards by upgrading their equipment. Any real solution is going to cost Canadians. "A penny a gallon will go a long way," says Miller.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has estimated that over C$16.5 billion will be needed to upgrade water infrastructure over the next 10 years.

The Canadian Water and Wastewater Association has estimated C$90 billion will be needed for water and wastewater infrastructure over the next 15 years. "I would guess their guestimate is low," says Duncan Ellison, executive director of the CWWA, of the federation's estimate.

Without these upgrades, smaller water systems can't meet even current guidelines. But there are other problems, as the story of Dauphin shows.

The city could have built a modern plant long before the giardia outbreak hit. But local people weren't interested, because they would have had to spend their own money to qualify for matching funds from Ottawa.

By the time the city was forced to act to eradicate the giardia problem, the federal aid program was over, and it took more than a year of pleading to get funding. The town eventually got C$3 million each from federal and provincial coffers, which they added to their own funds. The new C$9 million plant is "a Cadillac," says Mr. Puffalt.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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