Friday, 17 June 2011

Source Protection Defended

By Don Pearson, General Manager, Conservation Ontario

A recent article from Monte Sonnenberg  Province going overboard protecting water sources” appearing in a number of local media outlets takes issue with the provincial response to the Walkerton tragedy of 2000, claiming municipalities have been forced to “over-engineer” their water systems and that “billions of dollars in extraordinary costs” have been racked up!   We don’t dispute the author’s right to express his opinions, but let’s get the facts straight! 

To suggest that the events at Walkerton were simply the result of careless behaviour of a few employees displays wanton ignorance of the factors that contributed the tragedy, which are thoroughly documented in Justice Dennis O’Connor’s well considered reports on the Walkerton Inquiry.  The people who died, and the hundreds of others who became ill and who are still exhibiting health effects, were the needless result of a systemic failure of a critical public service.  The issues ranged from individual failures of responsibility, gaps in regulatory oversight, communication breakdown, inadequate training, and agencies that were understaffed and under resourced to fulfill their responsibilities.
In Part 2 of the Inquiry, Justice O’Connor consulted a wide range of national and international experts to come up with recommendations to the province on how to protect drinking water in the future.  Since the release of the Inquiry Report, the Province has implemented those recommendations to put in place a multi-barrier approach.  This is consistent with the way others around the world are protecting drinking water sources.  To ensure a tragedy like Walkerton never happens again is the least the government can do, and all Ontario political parties have endorsed and committed to implement the recommendations of the inquiry, including the need to protect drinking water supplies at their source.
I will leave the outrageous statements regarding “over-engineered” water systems and over-staffed public works departments to others more qualified to refute.  Suffice to say, municipalities are still able to supply a cubic metre of safe drinking water to their residents for less than $2.  Of course, I am free to purchase a 500 ml bottle for as little as $1 at a convenience store, even cheaper if I buy a case, but that adds up to $2000 per cubic metre.  Since municipalities are assumed to recover the cost of providing this service by charging adequate rates, they must be rather efficient at producing and distributing drinking water.   It is difficult to imagine how supplying drinking water is bankrupting them!
Regarding the continuing effort to protect drinking water sources, characterized as “bureaucracy run amok”, there are about 40 staff at the Ministry of the Environment, and another 120 working at the local Conservation Authorities, writing guidance and policies and looking at the features in a watershed that are critical to maintaining water supply as well as the activities that could threaten these supplies. This Ontario Drinking Water Source Protection Program protects 986 municipal wells and 156 surface water intakes. The total cost of this effort from the planning stage to plan completion will be around $160 Million or $2 per Ontario resident per year. 
In terms of protecting sources of drinking water, the provincial government followed the O’Connor recommendations to give control of the source protection planning process to the local community.  Source Protection Committees are composed of representatives from municipalities, agriculture, other local industries and the general public. It is these committees that are making the decisions on source protection policies, not provincial bureaucrats.
The final thought that water, due to Walkerton, is approaching the cost of hydro and natural gas, is the most curious.  Water is rated by cubic metre, as is natural gas, while electricity (hydro) is rated on Kilowatt hours of consumption.  Water and sewer charges are around $1.90 per cubic metre, while natural gas is currently $0.24.  A cubic metre of water (1000 litres) would last the average household of three persons for about one day using our per capita average consumption (most of which goes down the toilet) while a cubic metre of natural gas provides heat and hot water for about 2.5 hours during the winter months.  So my daily water and sewage cost is less than my daily gas cost of $2.40.  Is water expensive?  Perhaps, if you don’t compare it to anything else a household purchases, like Cable TV!


  1. Well said. It is too bad that the level of "debate" is dictated by the willful ignorance and ideological agenda of provocateurs like Mr. Sonnenberg. We can't have a real debate until all involved are willing to acknowledge the objective truth.

  2. Everyone has the right to be stupid the problem is that some people abused that right.

  3. Right on, Don. Water is our most precious resource and the only thing we cannot live without. Therefore, we better make sure it is clean. What price does Mr. Sonnenberg put on a human life?