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When Walter’s Falls residents posted a jumbo For Sale sign beside the community’s mill in 2005, they hoped the provincial government would take their publicity stunt for what it was – a cry for help.
Water bills had jumped from a few hundred to $1,400 per year, making water more expensive than local property taxes.
Every homeowner and business got hit with a one-time $1,300 levy to cover the cost of capital upgrades to bring the water system up to provincial standards; even though the water they’d been drinking for decades had always been safe. “If some corporation or some guy with a lot of money wants to come in and buy the town … that’s fine with us, as long as we still live here and don’t have to pay the water fees,” said Suzanne Allman, a member of the water committee.
The residents of Walter’s Falls, a few kilometres east of Owen Sound, are not alone in their frustration, nor is their story unique.
Walkerton was the catalyst for change for our water resources in Ontario.
The tainted-water tragedy that saw seven people die and thousands laid ill after their town water became contaminated with E. coli bacteria in May 2000 was “a wake-up call,” Justice Dennis O’Connor said in his inquiry report on what went wrong in Walkerton. However, the public may not be prepared for the magnitude of change and investment proposed to deal with Walkerton’s legacy and Ontario’s broader water troubles.
“If you would have asked … just after the tragedy in Walkerton, people would have automatically said, ‘Yes we need to deal with that,’ ” said David Caplan, Ontario’s minister of public infrastructure renewal.
“That was just the canary in the coal mine. It highlighted the potential for serious public health concerns. As we get further and further away, we have SARS, we have West Nile, we have a blackout, we have other urgent and pressing matters and the memory of that tragedy becomes dimmer and dimmer,” he said.
In parts of the world, a gallon of water already costs more than a gallon of oil. “The wars of the next century will be about water,” the World Bank famously prophesized several years ago.
Worldwide demand for water is expected to increase by as much as 50 per cent by 2025, by which time the United Nations estimates more than two billion people in 48 countries will be living with serious water shortages.
Just three per cent of all water on the Earth is fresh water and more than two-thirds of that is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps.
Canada has 21 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply. Ontario, bordered by the Great Lakes, the largest fresh water lake system in the world, and intersected by thousands of smaller lakes, is lousy with the stuff.
Hardly surprising, then, that we have collectively taken cheap, clean water for granted and put off spending on water infrastructure to the point that repair bills alone now total more than $11 billion.
We are in for a rude awakening.
Urban sprawl, population growth, climate change, water bottling, recreation, expanding industry and commerce as well as agriculture, all are putting new pressures on water resources.
User pay has become the new provincial mantra and smaller communities are already dealing with the costs of meeting stringent new regulations governing how they take, treat and use water.
In some Ontario communities where water bills have skyrocketed to more than $3,000 annually per household, residents pay more for water than they do in property tax.
Walter’s Falls is an example.
In 2004, the hamlet decided to replace a small, aging communal water distribution system that served a dozen hilltop households that couldn’t access well water.
However, when officials applied to Ontario’s Environment Ministry to replace the system, they were told all 50 homes in Walter’s Falls would have to meet new post-Walkerton standards.
Unwilling to cut off their neighbours from drinking water, residents got together and agreed everyone would go on the new communal system. It was a decision many would regret.
“The majority of our people are sitting on our own wells and you’re going to make us pay 1,500 bucks a year for water,” Allman said. “How is that right?”
“We’ve got an elderly couple here … on old-age pension. There’s no way they can afford that.”
Howard Greig is mayor of the Township of Chatsworth, which includes Walter’s Falls. It quickly became clear that neither the municipality nor its residents could afford to pay the full cost of needed upgrades, he said. But he couldn’t cut residents off from water.
Officials began to gather estimates for upgrading both water services – one for the 250 users in the former village of Chatsworth and another for the 50 in Walter’s Falls – with a notion of spreading expenses over a broader population base.
To comply with new regulations, the town would need to install new filters, ultraviolet disinfection and chlorination equipment, alarms, a new filter pump and instrumentation and to decommission one well.
Costs were pegged at $478,950 for the township and almost half that much again for Walter’s Falls. The municipality got some $300,000 in help through a federal/provincial cost-sharing program. Without the grants, Greig said he would have been forced to put everyone on wells and left those who couldn’t drill for water to fend for themselves.
Other communities weren’t so lucky in the grant lottery and had to do just that. The province can’t put an estimate on the number of communities or water users who abandoned municipal systems for wells, but municipal officials insist the number is significant.
“The small systems are the ones that became unaffordable,” Greig said.
Meanwhile, residents in his community grew increasingly furious over the water controversy.
“Everyone’s waters bills went up. It was not just the operating costs, it was also the capital upgrades that had been imposed through regulation.”
Most galling to residents was the fact both the raw water supply and what came out of the tap had always been pristine. “The water was always good,” Greig said.
Steve Hrudy was an expert member of the Walkerton commission, a University of Alberta professor internationally recognized for his work on water systems.
Hrudy said that while Ontario has made progress on many of O’Connor’s recommendations, he’s disappointed by the failure of the province to act on two key recommendations.
O’Connor specifically warned the province to consider financial assistance and subsidies to smaller communities. That hasn’t been done.
O’Connor also advised the province to help small centres explore all “managerial, operational and technological options” to save money and, “if the system is still too expensive, the provincial government should make assistance available to lower the cost per household to a predetermined level.”
Instead of that carrot, the provincial response to O’Connor has been mostly stick – a costly and some argue unwieldy water bureaucracy.
“A regulatory program without adequate support and means for providing capacity is not going to be successful,” Hrudy said.
“There’s more emphasis on penalties and ability to enforce them perhaps than there needs to be.”
Hrudy also lamented the failure of the province to act on the recommendation to improve the professional management of Ontario’s water utilities.
“The Walkerton Commission was quite clear: Ontario was not in widespread crisis,” Hrudy said. “There’s lots of excellent practice in the water industry and the challenge for the Ministry of Environment was to try to ensure the good practice that was in place would be universally adopted as opposed to a bunch of bureaucrats setting up a bunch more rules that would impinge on everyone.”
“The lawyers drafting regulations that simply specified specific criteria and penalties” happened first, he said.
“The competence part was enshrined in the idea of having a quality management system that could be accredited and externally audited, and it hasn’t happened. This was a centrepiece of the whole strategy. I’m certainly disappointed in that.”
On the other side of the coin, Ontarians need to get used to the notion that safe water isn’t free, Hrudy said.
“When I first became involved … I was shocked to see how low water rates were in Ontario compared to what I was used to in Alberta.”
“We’re used to paying for it, whereas when it’s all over the place and seemingly you just put in a pipe and suck it out, that creates a potential for taking it for granted.”
Hrudy said Ontario, like most other North American jurisdictions, has a “structural problem” in its water industry insofar as small municipal councils run water systems they are not particularly qualified or well-equipped to operate.
Users need to pay the full cost of drinking water – a principle the current provincial government has embraced. “In the long run, the only sustainable way to do that is to have the people who benefit from the service pay for it,” Hrudy said.
In a five-part series starting today, Osprey News Network examines growing threats to Ontario’s water supply and water quality and the impact increasingly complex, bureaucratic and costly regulations are having on water bills across the province.
We also examine the profound changes coming to this province’s municipal drinking water delivery systems and its aging infrastructure of water and sewage pipes and treatment facilities.
Reforms are coming that will merge small-town water systems into new regional water corporations; require businesses and farmers to deal with a new permit and inspection officials; outlaw normal farming practices on huge swaths of land and raise water bills for every household in the province.