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waterproof - Ecojustice
Canada’s Drinking Water Report Card
Canada’s Drinking Water Report Card
January 2001
Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data
Christensen, Randy, 1968Waterproof : Canada's drinking water report card
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 0-9698351-5-9
1. Drinking water--Law and legislation--Canada.
2. Drinking water--Government policy--Canada. 3. Wellhead
protection--Canada. 4. Water quality--Canada. I. Parfitt, Ben
II. Sierra Legal Defence Fund. III. Title.
KE2051.C48 2000
This report was written by Sierra Legal Staff Lawyer
Randy Christensen and freelance writer Ben Parfitt.
The authors wish to thank those who have assisted in
the preparation of this report. The Canadian Union of
Public Employees — and in particular Karin Jordan and
Ron Crawley — contributed generously to the
development and production.
Several members of the Sierra Legal staff gave invaluable
assistance: among them Communications Coordinator
Jim Boothroyd, who contributed to the design, editing
and production of this report; Communications
Assistant Shiloh Bouvette, who conducted research,
gathered photos and worked on the design; Legal
Assistant Lisa McKenzie, who helped with revisions; and
Staff Lawyer Tim Howard and Executive Director Karen
Wristen, who commented on drafts of the report.
Thanks also to Sean Standing, who conducted the initial
research; and to Kevin Moffitt and Michelle Wilson of
Karyo Communications, for their good advice and
artful design.
Table of Contents
Chapter I
Waterproofing Canada: Executive Summary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Chapter II
Water Hazards: Threats to Our Drinking Water . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Micro-organisms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Soil, Silt and Organic Matter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
From Land and Air To Water . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Beckwith's Toxic Water Woes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Poison in the Pic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Radionuclides . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Chapter III
Four Safety Barriers: Water Treatment and Delivery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Watershed Protection in Saint John . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
The First Barrier: Protected Water Sources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Bigger Farms—Bigger Problems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
The Second Barrier: Water Treatment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
The Third Barrier: A Clean Distribution System . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
The Final Barrier: Comprehensive Testing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
Chapter IV
Waterproof: A Comparison of Drinking Water Regulations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Protection of Drinking Water Sources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
Water Quality Testing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
Water Treatment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
Construction and Operation of Delivery Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
Reporting Requirements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
Regulatory Supervision . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
The United States of Safe Water . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
The Federal Government’s Role in Drinking Water Protection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
Chapter V
Water Marks: National Drinking Water Report Card . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Watershed and Wellfield Protection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Stringency of Testing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Water Treatment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Operator Training and Certification . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Reporting Requirements and the Public Right to Know . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Report Card . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38
Chapter VI
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41
Methodology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
Endnotes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44
I Waterproofing Canada:
Executive Summary
waterborne disease outbreak that caused thousands
of residents in an Ontario town to fall violently ill in
the spring of 2000 was well suited to capture news
headlines. Not only was the outbreak fraught with early
allegations of negligence or wrongdoing, the speed at
which it made people ill and, in a few tragic cases, killed
them, was frightening.
The rapid expansion of media coverage quickly turned
Walkerton into a household word, forcing the Ontario
government to call an independent inquiry into the
causes of the disease outbreak. Launched in the fall of
2000 and likely to carry on well into 2001, the inquiry is
expected to shed light on how and why so many people
became seriously ill from drinking the water coming out
of their household taps.
But many people hope the inquiry will do more than that.
Environmental and public health advocates have long
maintained that Canada’s drinking water is not as safe as
we may think. While it is true that the nation’s drinking
water is safer than most, significant problems continue to
crop up across Canada. And there is growing concern that
the funding required to ensure that the systems that
treat and deliver water to Canadians are up-to-date and
functioning well. This funding shortfall is especially
problematic in light of new service responsibilities
downloaded to cash-strapped municipalities. Mounting
pressure may force some municipalities to turn to the
private sector to own and operate water systems, further
muddying the waters of accountability.
In the absence of a comprehensive, cross-country
approach to protecting drinking water, more tragedies
almost certainly await us. While Walkerton stands as the
worst modern-day waterborne disease outbreak in
Canada, many other communities across the country have
had their water supplies contaminated.
The potentially lethal single-cell parasite
cryptosporidium has surfaced in water supplies in
Collingwood and Kitchener, Ontario, as well as the
British Columbia communities of Cranbrook and
Kelowna. Faecal coliforms, including E. coli, have been
detected in Moncton, New Brunswick’s drinking water.
Cancer-causing trihalomethanes (THMs) have been
In the absence of a comprehensive, cross-country
approach to protecting drinking water, more tragedies
almost certainly await us.
as human developments further deplete and degrade
drinking water sources like streams, rivers, lakes and wells,
problems may worsen.
At the same time, Canada’s aging water and wastewater
infrastructure is in need of renewal and upgrading. But
the current federal infrastructure program falls short of
found in Newfoundland waters. And in several Ontario
communities traces of trichloroethylene—the
waterborne chemical whose debilitating health effects
are chronicled in the popular non-fiction book and
movie, A Civil Action—have also turned up. This list is
by no means exhaustive.
As the severity of the Walkerton disease outbreak
became apparent, Sierra Legal Defence Fund launched a
national survey of drinking water protection in Canada.
A report card and comparative tables accompanying
this report bring together for the first time an analysis
of how each province fares in a number of important
areas, including:
• Protecting drinking water at its source.
• Water treatment and testing.
• Informing the public.
In conducting the survey and arriving at its grades,
Sierra Legal contacted relevant government personnel in
each province and territory. Each was asked to provide
information on a range of issues. (For details about
sources please refer to Endnotes and Bibliography.)
For example, they were asked whether or not their
governments require testing before a water source is
approved. Similarly, they were asked whether their
government had the legal means to protect the lands
around water supplies from potentially harmful human
activities. Other issues included:
• Whether the province or territory had a single agency
dedicated to protecting all aspects of drinking water
• What they tested for and how that compared to the
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.
• Whether or not they used accredited labs to test
water quality.
• Methods of water treatment.
• Public reporting requirements.
All provinces and territories responded to the initial
survey. They were then given an opportunity to
comment in writing on the summaries reprinted in this
report. Most did so, and where it was warranted minor
changes or clarifications to the report were made.
Some significant standouts emerged from the survey.
For example, Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec are alone
among Canadian provinces and territories in nearly or
completely adopting the Guidelines for Canadian
Drinking Water Quality as the standard by which their
drinking water is assessed. The Guidelines set fairly
stringent limits on a number of potentially harmful
microbiological, chemical and radiological
contaminants that may be found in community
drinking water supplies.
New Brunswick and Nova Scotia also receive high
marks for the work that they have done to bring some
limited legislated protection to watershed lands. And
Ontario receives recognition for its decision (postWalkerton) requiring that the results of drinking water
tests be publicly available.
But no single province is found to be doing an
outstanding job across the broad range of issues
examined. In fact the top three provinces—Alberta,
Ontario, and Quebec—receive just a B grade. And
Ontario is only awarded that score based on recent
changes to its regulatory regime, changes that won’t be
fully implemented until 2002. If Ontario is judged preWalkerton it receives a D, the same grade assigned
British Columbia and Newfoundland. The Yukon fares
worse with a D minus while the Northwest Territories
and Nunavut both do marginally better with a C.
All the remaining provinces with the exception of Prince
Edward Island receive grades ranging from B minus in
the case of Nova Scotia—which introduced revised
regulations last fall—down to C minus for New
Brunswick. Canada’s smallest province is awarded an F,
the lowest grade in this inaugural report card. (For a
complete list of grades see the accompanying map and
further explanation in Chapters IV and V.)
While some provinces do better than others, no single
jurisdiction does an exemplary job. Furthermore, the
overall approach to safeguarding drinking water in
Canada lags far behind the United States, where a much
higher emphasis is placed on the protection of water at
its source and on ensuring that citizens have ready
access to current information on the quality of their
drinking water.
By protecting watersheds from potentially harmful
land-uses such as factory farming, logging or urban
sprawl, water suppliers can go a significant way toward
safeguarding drinking water quality.
However, most Canadian jurisdictions have failed to
seriously address legislated watershed protection. Not
one Canadian province or territory has seen fit to
appoint a single agency with sole responsibility for all
aspects of drinking water quality—an idea that has been
proposed by at least one provincial government’s
Auditor General (British Columbia’s). And few insist on
certified labs doing water quality testing.
Differences between provinces are not the only thing
standing in the way of better drinking water protection
and treatment in Canada. Overall, Canada’s drinking water
protection is not as strong as that of the United States.
The Safe Drinking Water Act, administered by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, lists a large number of
contaminants that are not allowed, or permitted at only
very low concentrations in public water supplies. Among
the compounds listed in the U.S. act that are not even
included in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water
Quality are asbestos (which causes intestinal problems),
beryllium (intestinal lesions), thalium (linked to kidney,
liver and intestinal problems, among other ailments) and
a number of pesticides. As well, the U.S. places more
stringent limits on certain contaminants than does
Canada. For example, Canada’s limit on trichloroethylene
is ten times higher than the U.S. standard. (For more
information on the U.S., see accompanying story in
Chapter IV, The United States of Safe Water.)
During the course of its survey, Sierra Legal identified
several serious deficiencies in how the Canadian
government, individual provinces, and territories
approach the protection of public water supplies. To
avoid future disease outbreaks, these deficiencies must
be remedied.
The survey results contained in this report point toward
the need for some basic changes in the way we protect
and treat drinking water in Canada. In Chapters IV and
V we elaborate on these key recommendations:
Key Recommendations:
• Make drinking water protection mandatory.
• Enact comprehensive watershed and wellfield
• Make the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking
Water Quality binding across Canada.
• Require training and certification for the
operators of public water systems.
• Enact stringent reporting requirements and
establish right-to-know provisions for water
• Give citizens the right to sue jurisdictions that fail
to meet water standards, as is allowed in all U.S.
states and territories.
• Increase federal funding for the construction and
renewal of water treatment and delivery
infrastructures, making the funding contingent
on meeting water protection requirements.
We believe that if these recommendations are adopted
by all provincial and territorial governments, Canada
will have moved a significant step forward in preventing
waterborne disease outbreaks.
Later we explain in detail what we asked each jurisdiction
and how we ranked them. But before presenting the results
of our national survey, we turn briefly to a discussion of
common threats to drinking water and what constitutes
proper water treatment.
II Water Hazards:
Threats to Our Drinking Water
t didn’t take public health officials long to realize
that something was terribly wrong in Walkerton, a
town of 5,000 people in southwestern Ontario.
Disturbing numbers of people began arriving at
hospitals and doctors offices in May 2000, complaining
of bloody diarrhea and severe cramps. A potentially
deadly strain of E. coli bacteria had contaminated the
municipal drinking water supply and was soon
identified as the cause of the disease outbreak.
There are many forms of bacteria that people require in
order to live healthy lives. But the strain of E. coli that
contaminated Walkerton’s water made people violently
ill, and in seven tragic cases it killed them. Young people
and the elderly were at particularly high risk.
E. coli belongs to a much larger group of common
bacteria called coliforms, many of which are perfectly
harmless to humans. Within this group is a subset
called faecal coliforms. Faecal coliforms commonly
originate in the digestive tracts of warm-blooded
animals, and if they find their way into drinking water
can make people sick.
"While tap water that meets federal and state standards
generally is safe to drink, threats to drinking water
quality and quantity are increasing," the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency reported in 1997.
In Water on Tap: A Consumers Guide to the Nation’s
Drinking Water, the EPA went on to say:
"Microbiological and chemical contaminants can enter
water supplies. These materials can be the result of
human activity or can be found in nature. For instance,
chemicals can migrate from disposal sites and
contaminate sources of drinking water. Animal wastes
and pesticides may be carried to lakes and streams by
rainfall runoff or snow melt. Human wastes may be
discharged to receiving waters that ultimately flow to
water bodies used for drinking water. Coliform bacteria
from human and animal wastes may be found in
drinking water if the water is not properly treated or
disinfected. These bacteria are used as indicators that
other harmful organisms may be in the water."
As the EPA suggests, water providers have their work cut
out for them when it comes to protecting water
There is a growing awareness in Canada and the United
States that water supplies are at risk.
E. coli is just one of many contaminants that pose
public health risks which can be transmitted through
drinking water. While North American drinking water is
generally among the safest in the world, there is a
growing awareness in Canada and the United States that
water supplies are at risk.
supplies. To assist in doing this, officials in Canada, the
United States and Europe generally set limits for levels
of three broad categories of contaminants — microorganisms, chemicals, and radionuclides. From there, it
is common for maximum levels that limit the amount
of any one contaminant present in the water to be set.
Pathogenic or disease-causing micro-organisms that
contaminate drinking water include protozoa (singlecell parasites) such as cryptosporidium, bacteria and
intestinal viruses.
Each type of micro-organism may be present in surface
water and groundwater, although protozoa are more
commonly found in surface water supplies such as lakes,
rivers and streams.
A common disease attributable to waterborne microorganisms is gastrointestinal illness or diarrhea. In the
developing world where access to safe water supplies is
less common, gastrointestinal illness kills an estimated
11,000 children daily. But in developed countries like
Canada, the incidence of waterborne disease outbreaks
is low because governments have invested more in
locating, treating and distributing safe drinking water.
Nevertheless, waterborne disease outbreaks have
occurred numerous times in Canada and the United
States. The worst modern-day waterborne disease
outbreak in North America occurred in 1993, when as
many as 100 people died and 400,000 fell ill after
drinking water contaminated with the cryptosporidium
parasite in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
That same year, residents in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of
Ontario were ordered to boil their water after local
residents became ill and it was discovered that
cryptosporidium was in their water. Cases of
cryptosporidium contamination have occurred in other
Canadian water supplies, including those of Collingwood,
Ontario, and Cranbrook and Kelowna, British Columbia.
Another protozoa that triggers waterborne disease
outbreaks is giardia. The illness resulting from water
contaminated with giardia is commonly called 'beaver
fever', because a strain of giardia is often present in
beaver excrement.
Identifying micro-organisms in water is no easy task.
Cryptosporidium, for example, is transported in water in
microscopic cysts. Identifying these cysts in water
samples takes a great deal of time. Once identified, it is
very difficult to tell if the cysts contain living parasites
that could actually cause a person to become sick.
In 1996, Health Canada published the sixth edition of
it Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water. The
Guidelines, which are not legally enforceable, state that
it is "not practical or technically feasible to monitor for
all pathogens in drinking water."
Consequently, the microbiological guidelines Canada
has developed are based on so-called 'indicator
organisms' that, if present in water, may indicate
contamination by harmful disease-causing bacteria,
protozoa, or viruses.
Among the most commonly looked for indicator
organisms are coliforms. Trace amounts of coliforms
may be considered acceptable if they occur infrequently
in tests, the Guidelines say. But if they show up more
often, health officials become concerned. Of greater
worry is the presence of faecal coliforms. When these
turn up, it is considered strong evidence that a water
supply may be contaminated.
"Total coliforms are not necessarily an indication of the
presence of faecal contamination," the Guidelines state.
"Faecal coliforms in drinking water may, however, indicate
the presence of faecal contamination. The presence of
Escherichia coli, one species in the faecal coliform group, is
a definite indicator of the presence of faeces."
Most strains of Escherichia coli are relatively harmless.
But the strain that contaminated Walkerton’s water
supply — E. coli O157:H7 has been associated with
numerous disease outbreaks. It produces a powerful
toxin in humans that causes severe bloody diarrhea and
abdominal cramps. In the worst cases involving children
under the age of five and the elderly, E. coli 0157:H7 can
destroy red blood cells and cause kidney failure. It takes
the ingestion of as few as 10 to 100 of these microscopic
organisms — each about a tenth the size of a human
red blood cell — to make people sick.
For these and other reasons, the Guidelines set stringent
limits on the amount of coliforms allowed in drinking
water supplies (no more than 10 total coliforms per 100
ml of water) and insist on zero tolerance of faecal
coliforms. They close with a recommendation that, had
it been followed promptly, may have prevented the
Walkerton tragedy: "The confirmed presence of E. coli
in drinking water should trigger an immediate boil
water advisory."
The Guidelines do not set any maximum levels for viruses
or protozoa. But they do say, "it is desirable" not to have
any present in a drinking water supply. Given the health
effects associated with protozoa such as giardia, this is a
sound recommendation. The Guidelines also describe how
water supplies can be protected to guard against their
contamination by micro-organisms, a topic addressed in
the next part of this report.
A final word on micro-organisms: Things like the deadly
strain of E. coli that contaminated Walkerton’s water, or
the cryptosporidium parasite, are much more prevalent in
the environment than we may like to think. Moreover,
giardia and cryptosporidium are not effectively killed by
chlorination, the conventional water treatment method.
Carried by the billions in the faeces of cattle and other
warm-blooded animals, these contaminants can easily be
transported to surface water or groundwater after heavy
rainstorms and rapid melting of snow.
Effective protection against them is less a matter of
water treatment than prevention. In other words, the
focus should be on keeping them out of the water
supply in the first place. Because once they are in, they
are not easily gotten rid of.
Soil, silt and organic matter
In 1997, a team of U.S. scientists from the Harvard
Medical School and the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency published groundbreaking findings in the
journal Epidemiology. Their study showed that humans
have much more to worry about than just the
unpleasant look and taste of water clouded with
suspended particles of sediment.
Combing through five years of data supplied by
Philadelphia’s water department and Children’s
Hospital, the scientists found that when turbidity levels
in drinking water rose there was a corresponding 13.1
percent increase in the hospitalization of children
complaining of gastrointestinal illnesses.
A recent Health Canada study found a statistically
significant relationship between cloudy drinking water
in Greater Vancouver between 1992 and 1998 and 7,500
visits to physicians, 85 hospital admissions for adults,
and 138 pediatric hospital emergency room visits for
patients complaining of diarrhea and vomiting. Like
other cities with surface water supplies, Greater
Vancouver’s water periodically turns cloudy or turbid.
Often this follows heavy rains that wash soil and debris
into streams that feed the city’s reservoirs.
Lands surrounding surface water bodies are commonly
referred to as watersheds. Watersheds may vary from a
few hectares in size to tens of thousands of hectares.
Protecting Drinking-Water Sources, a report released in
1999 by British Columbia’s Auditor General, describes
watersheds as: "The entire area drained by a waterway,
or that drains into a lake or reservoir." Watersheds may
also be called catchment basins or catchment areas.
During periods of high runoff, sediment may be washed
into surface waters. Depending on the severity of runoff
and the water-treatment equipment in place, drinking
water may not be affected at all, or it may be rendered
cloudy for days, weeks, or months.
Numerous studies demonstrate that when watersheds are
developed for agricultural, forestry, mining or other land
uses there is an increased chance of sediment entering
surface water. That is partly because natural filters such as
trees are no longer present in their pre-development
abundance, leaving organic soils exposed to the forces of
erosion. Consequently, water in the form of rain or snow
makes direct contact with the ground where it carries
away sediment to nearby receiving waters. (See
accompanying story — From Land (and Air) to Water).
Poorly constructed or uncapped wells
• These are a common source of groundwater
• Roads, parking lots, airports and other paved surfaces
can accelerate runoff into nearby waters. The faster and
heavier the runoff, the more debris, including sediment
and pollutants, is carried into the water.
• Logging and associated road-building can increase
erosion and turbidity and, in some cases, cause algal
blooms. Forest fires, like prairie grass fires, can burn off
ground cover, leading to increased erosion.
From Land (and Air) to Water
The following list of possible sources of water
contamination is drawn from Protecting Drinking-Water
Sources, a 1999 report by B.C.’s Auditor General.
• Animal-raising operations (pigs, chickens, cattle) can be a
major source of nutrient overload in water, particularly
when large quantities of manure are mixed with water
and sprayed on land and some of this material leaches
into groundwater or runs off into streams.
• Cattle grazing on steep slopes can increase runoff and
sedimentation of streams.
• Feedlots and factory farms can contaminate water with
faecal matter that may carry bacteria such as E. coli or
pathogens such as cryptosporidium.
• Runoff triggered by rain or melting snow on cleared
farmlands may wash sediment into water.
• Pesticides and herbicides can leach into groundwater or
wash into streams or storm sewers (urban lawns, golf
courses, parks and gardens are also common sources).
Gravel pits and mines
• Gravel pits or other digging operations can disturb soils,
causing sediment to wash into nearby water bodies, or
expose groundwater and surface water to other
contaminants such as acid-generating waste rock.
Urban developments
• Cleared land for urban developments may leave soil
exposed for months at a time, leading to significant
amounts of sediment washing into streams.
Air pollutants
• From cars to factories, pollutants pumped into the air
can mix with rainwater or snow or be carried by wind
into water bodies.
Sewage treatment plants and factories
• A variety of chemical and other contaminants found in
sewage and industrial effluents can enter water bodies
that also serve as drinking-water sources.
Cloudy water poses three significant dangers.
First, pathogens such as E. coli are commonly found in
cattle faeces. If cattle are in a watershed, rain can easily
wash contaminated faecal matter into surface water. If
the surface water is inadequately filtered, the pathogen
may then pass into the water delivery system itself.
Second, pathogens are much harder to kill when they
are 'masked' by turbidity.
Third, when cloudy water is treated with chlorine,
further health risks may arise.
While chlorine’s use as a water disinfectant is widely
credited with dramatically reducing waterborne disease
outbreaks in many parts of the world, health officials
now know that it is not without its own risks. When
chlorine comes into contact with organic sediment in
water, it can bind to it and form carcinogenic
byproducts known as trihalomethanes or THMs.
In 1999, Health Canada reported that THMs are linked
to increased bladder and colon cancer in long-time
drinkers of chlorinated water. Adverse pregnancy
outcomes including miscarriages, birth defects and low
birth weights are also associated with THMs.
Some surface water supplies may be chronically more
cloudy than others, thanks to the topography of the lands
adjoining the water supply or as a result of runoff from
surrounding watershed lands. The cloudier a chlorinated
water supply, the more likely it is to be contaminated
with THMs. THM levels can also increase depending on
the time of season, water temperature (which plays a role
in where sediments settle in a water column), the amount
of chlorine used, and the point at which chlorine is used
in the water distribution system itself.
To control the presence of THMs in drinking water,
Health Canada advises "removing the organic matter from
the source water before disinfection so that it cannot react
with chlorine or other disinfectants to form byproducts."
If unwanted organic particles are filtered out of water in
advance of disinfection, then the water can be treated
with small amounts of chlorine or some other product if
there are concerns that the distribution system itself may
become contaminated with unwanted bacteria, viruses or
other pathogens. When this is done, chances are slim that
the chlorine will bind with sediment, unless a pipe breaks
in the distribution system itself.
But even the best water filters can be rendered ineffective
when water supplies become too cloudy. If watershed
lands are developed for agricultural, urban, logging,
mining, or other human uses, they are more likely than
undeveloped lands to cause sediment to flow into nearby
water bodies following periods of precipitation. To guard
against that happening, watershed lands should be
carefully managed to ensure that potentially damaging
land-uses do not occur.
carried off agricultural land into surface water supplies
in periods of high runoff.
Aware of this danger, the Guidelines for Canadian
Drinking Water Quality notes that Agriculture Canada
has ranked pesticides based on their potential to
contaminate groundwater supplies. One is the chemical
atrazine which is used extensively on Canadian farms to
control weeds in corn and rapeseed crops, as well as for
control of unwanted plants in non-cropland or
industrial settings.
Atrazine does not easily absorb into the soil, so it often
leaches out into groundwater sources. For this reason,
the Guidelines note that Agriculture Canada has ranked
atrazine as the number one threat to groundwater out
of a list of 83 potential pesticide contaminants. The
Guidelines go on to note that several epidemiological
studies have suggested that exposure to atrazine may
increase risks of ovarian cancer and lymphomas.
Though the evidence remains inconclusive, they
recommend an interim maximum acceptable
concentration (IMAC) of atrazine in drinking water of
.005 mg per litre.
Another troublesome herbicide that can contaminate
groundwater is bromoxynil, traces of which have been
found in municipal and private water supplies in
Canada. Used for controlling broad-leaved weeds in
When the cryptosporidium parasite made 400,000
Milwaukee residents sick in 1993, it did so in cloudy
water where filtration and chlorine treatment was in
place. Protecting watersheds places one more barrier —
some would say the most critical barrier — in the path of
potentially deadly bugs.
Chemicals and metals
Thousands of herbicides, pesticides and chemicals are
used daily in agricultural and industrial enterprises.
Some are carcinogenic. Many more are not, but are
associated with adverse health effects of varying severity.
When chemicals are mixed with water and applied as
herbicides or pesticides, they can seep into the ground
and contaminate groundwater supplies. They may also be
grain crops, bromoxynil is listed in the Guidelines as
having a "moderately high acute toxicity" that
principally attacks the liver.
These are but two of nearly three dozen chemicals
associated with various agricultural applications that
the Guidelines say pose a risk to humans if found in
high enough concentrations in drinking water. To deal
with these and other harmful chemicals and metals, the
Guidelines set IMACs or Maximum Acceptable
Concentrations (MACs) and then recommend regular
sampling and testing of water supplies to ensure that
the chemicals are not present in high concentrations.
"If there is reason to suspect the presence of certain
substances in a water supply, these substances should be
sampled more frequently to ensure that their
concentrations are below the acceptable limits. Also,
where public water supplies are derived from frequently
polluted raw water sources, the sampling frequency
should be increased from once every six months to once
every three months or as determined by the control
agency," the Guidelines say.
The Guidelines also point out that for pesticides and
herbicides, which are applied seasonally, water sampling
and testing should take place at those times of the year
when chemicals are most likely to make their way into
groundwater or surface water supplies.
A wide array of chemicals used in various industrial
applications may also contaminate drinking water,
posing a risk to humans.
For example, the U.S. EPA characterizes cyanide, with its
multiple applications in electroplating, steel, plastics,
mining and fertilizers, as an extremely fast-acting and
toxic poison that can damage the thyroid and central
nervous system. Cyanide use has threatened some
Canadian communities and yet has been kept out of the
listed items in federal regulations aimed at curbing water
pollution from mining operations.
Cyanide is often used in mining operations to separate
gold from excavated rock. The Guidelines describe it as an
"extremely toxic and fast-acting poison." Rules governing
pollution from Canadian mines are covered in the federal
Metal Mining Liquid Effluent Regulation. The MMLER
does not include cyanide as a regulated substance, because
when it was drafted it was not thought economically
feasible to remove cyanide from mine waste. Recently
proposed changes to the MMLER include cyanide as a
listed substance. However, other potentially troublesome
waterborne contaminants that environmental activists
hoped to see covered in the revised regulation — such as
mercury and cadmium — are not included.
Beckwith’s Toxic Water Woes
Eastern Ontario residents struggling to rid their
community drinking water of a lethal toxin say the
Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality are out
of step with the times.
The toxin in question is trichloroethylene or TCE. The
Guidelines set a non-enforceable objective to limit TCE to
no more than .05 mg per litre of drinking water. But that
level is ten times higher than that established by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency.
In October 2000 the Beckwith Water Contamination
Committee formally petitioned Canada’s Auditor General
to take strong action to control the release of TCE into the
environment and to immediately amend the Guidelines to
meet the U.S. standards.
TCE has gained recent prominence as a result of an
award-winning non-fiction book, A Civil Action (later a
popular Hollywood movie), which chronicled the story of a
small community in Massachusetts where contaminated
drinking water was blamed for a cancer cluster and the
deaths of 12 children.
Commonly used in metal degreasing operations, TCE is
listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a
'probable' human carcinogen. It has been detected in the
water supplied to 237 homes in Beckwith Township.
Beckwith residents draw their water from private
groundwater wells. A plume of TCE-contaminated water,
estimated at nine kilometres long, runs through the
aquifer feeding the wells. An abandoned landfill and scrap
yard is the suspected source of contamination.
In addition to the threats posed by drinking contaminated
water, Beckwith residents may be at even greater risk when
they shower or bathe, because the skin readily absorbs TCE.
Easily evaporated from contaminated water, TCE can also
be breathed in. There is a strong association between TCE
and cancer of the kidney and liver.
In 1993, Environment Canada and Health Canada
assessed TCE as one of the 30 most toxic substances in
Canada under the Canadian Environmental Protection
Act. Seven years after that decision, however, the federal
government had not taken any action to limit the release
of TCE into the environment.
Since 1987, TCE has been listed in the Guidelines for
Canadian Drinking Water Quality. But the guidelines are
not enforceable and only two Canadian provinces —
Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec — have nearly or
completely adopted the guidelines in their drinking water
regulations. The U.S. sets much more stringent standards for
TCE. It also sets limits for a number of other contaminants
that are not even included in the Canadian list.
(For more information on Beckwith, please contact
Sierra Legal Defence Fund for a copy of a Petition under
the Auditor General Act [R.S.C. c.A-17] filed on behalf
of the Beckwith Water Contamination Committee and
its individual members by Sierra Legal.)
Poison in the Pic
For people living in aboriginal communities in Canada’s
most populous province, the Walkerton inquiry’s broader
mandate came as welcome news.
For years, many of them have lived with inadequately
treated or otherwise unsafe drinking water. But because
their communities tended to be small and isolated, their
water woes barely registered with the outside world.
A case in point is the community of Pic River, near the
banks of the Pic and the shore of northern Lake Superior,
a three-hour drive east of Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Five years ago the Pic River was poisoned following a
cyanide spill at a mining operation upriver at the Hemlo
gold field. The spill contaminated the community’s
drinking water system, which had been installed in the
late 1970s at a cost of $1.3 million, and which drew water
from the Black and Pic Rivers.
For three years following the spill, the Department of Indian
and Northern Affairs trucked potable drinking water to the
community at a total cost of $300,000. After extensive
negotiations, DIAND spent an additional $2.8 million to
provide a new water supply for the community. The water
now comes from five deep wells near the lakeshore.
Pic River First Nation chief Roy Michano says the
unexpected expenditure on a new water supply meant that
Pic River’s residents were forced to postpone other muchneeded infrastructure improvements. "There have been
delays in subdivision developments, sanitation, and
sewage treatment. It [the spill] impacted negatively on our
capacity," Michano says.
Across Canada, other aboriginal communities have
suffered a spate of drinking-water-related setbacks. A 1995
report prepared by Health Canada’s Medical Services
Branch for DIAND notes that of 863 First Nations
community water systems surveyed, 20 percent or 171 of
them "have the potential to affect the health and safety of
the community."
Similarly, of the 425 sewage treatment systems examined
in aboriginal communities, nine percent or 39 of them
experience problems that "could potentially affect the
health and safety of the community."
The report goes on to note that the 171 communities with
poor drinking water exceeded important health parameters
laid out in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water
"You have to remember that for the last seven years,
Canada has been ranked the No. 1 country in the world to
[live in] by the United Nations, but if you isolate the
conditions of aboriginal peoples, we rank sixty-third,"
Fontaine said.
A wide array of other chemicals used in industrial
applications, including monochlorobenzenes (used as
solvents for adhesives), dichloroethanes (used in the
preparation of vinyl chloride), chlorophenols (used in
some pesticides and wood preservatives), are possibly
carcinogenic and have the potential to be transported in
drinking water.
In addition to harmful chemicals and byproducts,
naturally occurring metals can also contaminate water
supplies. Arsenic, for example, has many different
industrial applications. But, as the Guidelines note, it is
also "widely distributed in the earth’s crust and is present
in trace amounts in all living matter." A carcinogen,
arsenic has been linked to the modern-day poisoning of
millions of water users in Bangladesh, India, Chile and
Taiwan after they unknowingly drilled into groundwater
sources contaminated with naturally-occurring arsenic
to avoid using water from polluted surface water sources.
Quality, in some cases for multiple violations. Of the 171
communities, 78 were cited for failing total coliform
guidelines. Another 52 were cited for failing faecal coliform
guidelines, and 60 for failing turbidity guidelines.
Guidelines limiting trihalomethanes, fluoride, nitrate,
sodium, lead, and arsenic were also exceeded.
Despite spending $500 million on First Nations water and
infrastructure between 1991 and 1995, the report
estimated that it would cost at least another $214 million
for priority drinking water projects in First Nations
communities. That cost didn’t include improvements at
some 76 communities where engineering studies had yet to
be done.
When Walkerton’s water crisis became the subject of daily
newscasts, Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the
Assembly of First Nations, was quick to note the irony. On the
one hand, Canadians seemed shocked to learn that a public
water system could be so unsafe. Yet they remained unaware
of the ongoing conditions on many reserves.
Only through thorough and frequent monitoring of
water supplies for arsenic and other potentially harmful
metals and chemicals can the risk of potentially lifethreatening illnesses be avoided.
Radioactive substances known as radionuclides are
another family of potential waterborne contaminants of
concern to health officials. Exposure to radioactive
material may come from natural sources, nuclear
reactors, mining operations, or from nuclear weapons
test explosions.
Once they enter the body (commonly through air, food,
or water), radionuclides can remain there for extended
periods of time, in the worst cases several months or
years. Some radionuclides are carcinogenic, and some
have much longer half-lives than others.
"The relationship between radiation exposure and the
probability of causing a cancer depends on the type of
radiation and the tissue or organ exposed," the
Guidelines say.
The Guidelines go on to note that "different types of
radiation have different effectiveness at causing
biological damage, and different organs and tissues in
the body have different sensitivities to radiation . . . .
Radionuclides taken into the body by inhalation or
ingestion may persist for extended periods of time."
In most cases, the Guidelines say, the levels of
radionuclides normally encountered in drinking water
are far below the threshold for acute effects of radiation.
Among the radionuclides of most concern to public
health officials are:
• Radium-226, which occurs naturally in soils, is
commonly transmitted through foods, and can be
found in groundwater when an aquifer comes into
contact with radium-bearing materials such as rocks,
soil and ore deposits.
• Tritium, which commonly exists in the environment
in water, and is produced naturally in the upper
atmosphere and artificially in nuclear detonations
and during nuclear reactor operations. Tritium has
been detected in drinking water samples in Port Elgin
near the Bruce Nuclear Facility on Lake Huron.
• Cesium-137, which can concentrate in the food chain,
has a radioactive half-life of more than 30 years, and
is released during normal reactor operations and in
the fallout from nuclear explosions.
• Iodine-131, which can be released during nuclear
explosions, from reactors and fuel reprocessing facilities.
III Four Safety Barriers:
Water Treatment and Delivery
roviding clean drinking water is more than just a
matter of treating it with powerful chemical
disinfectants such as chlorine. Increasingly, water
providers, public health officials, and environmental
agencies agree that water protection requires 'multiple
barriers' against possible contamination.
In 1999, B.C.’s Auditor General George Morfitt issued
a report entitled Protecting Drinking Water Sources.
The document succinctly captured the central elements
of a treatment chain that begins with the water source
itself and carries through the distribution system to the
water coming out of household and business taps. (See
accompanying story, Watershed Protection in Saint John.)
Watershed Protection in Saint John
Saint John, New Brunswick, has the oldest and one of the
best protected public water supplies in Canada. According
to Peter Hanlon, manager of Saint John’s water and
sewerage services, the city has been purchasing lands since
the mid-1800s in one of two major watersheds, which now
supplies 65,000 residents and a host of industries. The
"We’re prepared to buy any land in the watershed,"
Hanlon says. "But we’re concentrating on the water edge.
The more that we can control access to the water and
control the use of the land surrounding the water, the
more we can control activities that impact on water."
Like other professionals involved in providing and managing
public water supplies, Hanlon favors a 'multi-barrier'
approach: looking after water from the source right through
to the household tap.
To a certain degree, protecting water sources is also a
priority of the Province. One regulation under New
Brunswick’s Clean Water Act—a unique regulation not
found in other Canadian provinces—allows the Minister
of Environment to designate as protected, lands within 75
metres of the banks of watercourses located within
watersheds. Twenty-five New Brunswick municipalities
have had their watershed lands so designated.
In the case of Saint John, Hanlon says the designation
applies to the lakes themselves and all feeder rivers or
creeks running into the larger water bodies.
Protecting water sources from possible contamination is
the first and most important aspect of a safe drinking
water strategy.
other watershed, Spruce Lake, is all Crown land, meaning
no purchase is necessary.
That purchase program means that the City of Saint John
owns more than one third of the land in the Loch Lomond
watershed, with further land being purchased as it
becomes available.
The Province has also initiated a process that could result in
further protection of watershed lands, asking interested cities
to submit proposals — something Saint John has done.
Saint John’s water and sewerage system services 65,000 of the
72,000 residents within the city’s boundaries. Hanlon says the
water treatment includes coarse screening, chlorination, and
fluoridation. The water is also 're-chlorinated' at one point.
Saint John last had a boil-water advisory in 1973. Of
short duration, it applied only to a small section of the city
where bacterial regrowth occurred in part of a water
distribution line.
The B.C. Auditor General's report noted that multiplebarrier water treatment programs are the most likely to
"cost-effectively maintain a high quality tap water." It
went on to say that "There are four primary means for
maintaining good drinking-water quality:
• The first line of defence is a protected water source.
• The second line of defence is water treatment, which
always includes disinfection.
• The next line of defence is a well-designed and
operated water distribution system with a continuous
flow and pressurized pipes and the presence of
residual disinfectant to counter bacterial regrowth.
• The final line of defence is comprehensive testing of
drinking water."
As is abundantly clear in the wake of the Walkerton
disaster, the town’s defence system suffered a
catastrophic collapse in mid-May 2000. Large amounts
of the E. coli bacteria in the town’s well water caused the
disease outbreak, and remained present in the well
water for months after the outbreak began.
The current water system delivers 38.5 million gallons of
water per day to residents and industry, according to Hanlon.
To better provide safe drinking water to area households,
the City is embarking on an ambitious program to
separate industrial water from potable water. Once
complete, the potable water will be further treated by
installing coagulation, floculation, and sedimentation
equipment. Sand filters will also be used prior to chlorine
treatment. The estimated cost for the new work is $63
million. The projected completion date of 2011 will
coincide with a new wastewater and sewage treatment
plant estimated to cost $110 million.
Saint John is required to test its drinking water weekly—
although in practice it averages twice weekly—for
bacterial contaminants, including coliforms, faecal
coliforms and heterotrophic plates. It also tests semiannually for 19 inorganics, and quarterly for 18 organic
contaminants. Beyond these tests required by the Province,
it has added a number of other tests to its list. Testing is
done to the standards set out in the Guidelines for
Canadian Drinking Water Quality, Hanlon says.
Test results, compiled by a private lab, are sent simultaneously
to the City and the local Department of Health.
The First Barrier:
Protected Water Sources
Whether the water source is a well from which
groundwater is drawn or a surface water body such as a
lake, reservoir, river or stream, protecting water sources
from possible contamination is the first and most
important aspect of a safe drinking water strategy.
Once this concept is embraced, potentially destructive
land-uses must be limited or eliminated in those areas
where the chance of groundwater or surface water
contamination is high. Agriculture, forestry, gravel and
mining operations, sewage disposal, urban
developments, roads, air pollution and forestry can all
contribute to potentially harmful contaminants entering
drinking water supplies.
Farming activities, in particular, have become a flashpoint in
this regard. First, there is some evidence that the source of
the E. coli contamination in Walkerton may have been a
farming operation. Second, modern-day farming operations
are often industrial in scale, producing massive volumes of
potentially contaminated animal waste. Third, farming
operations enjoy lax regulations and legislated protection
from anyone — citizen or government — interfering with
their operations. So there is little control over activities that
could put water sources at risk, including the disposal of
animal waste as well as the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
(See accompanying story—Bigger Farms — Bigger Problems.)
If effective management of land use occurs in watersheds,
the chances of dirt and pathogens being transported in
runoff to surface waters or percolating through
subsurface soils to groundwater are greatly reduced.
Bigger Farms — Bigger Problems
Just how a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria came to be in
Walkerton’s drinking water may never be known. But the
speculation from the beginning was that an unusually
heavy rain saturated a nearby livestock operation carrying
contaminated runoff into the town’s wells.
This is no surprise. Pig and cattle operations are growing in
size. Industrial amounts of manure are produced in some of
these modern-day farms. Getting rid of it in a way that
does not degrade the environment or endanger human
health is often difficult.
Despite the ecological and public health risks associated with
such operations, the agricultural industry continues to evolve
toward bigger farms. "There’s no question we’ve had a
dramatic escalation of factory farming in this country,"
federal Environment Minister David Anderson said in 2000.
"The factory farm is happening and with that, we’d better
make sure we don’t wake up to a problem later."
Any farming operation, large or small, can pose health
and environmental risks. But the scale of factory farms
means that when problems arise, they are that much
greater and more difficult to contend with.
A major challenge related to cattle, poultry, and swine
operations, is the disposal of manure. A single cow
produces 22 times more waste than a person does. Pigs
fattened for pork also generate large amounts of waste.
A pig farm with 3,600 animals, for example, produces as
much excrement as a city of 15,000 residents, three times
bigger than Walkerton.
Containing and disposing of such large volumes of
animal waste is a constant challenge, and one that
is not well regulated.
In December 1998, the Washington, D.C.-based Natural
Resources Defense Council released America’s Animal
Factories: How States Fail to Prevent Pollution from
Livestock Waste. The report documented a number of
problems with factory farms, including:
• A North Carolina pig farm whose 'manure lagoon'
burst in 1995, creating the worst hog-waste spill on
record — killing as many as 10 million fish and closing
145,600 hectares of coastal wetlands to shell-fishing.
• Elevated levels of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas (up to 50
times higher than the state standard) near factory farms
in Minnesota, resulting in area residents complaining of
nausea, vomiting and other flu-like symptoms.
• Elevated nitrate levels in more than a third of wells
located next to poultry and hog-farming operations in
North Carolina.
Canada has had its share of problems too. For example:
• A study by the Upper Thames River Conservation
Authority in London, Ont., found that on average 2
percent of liquid manure sprayed on lands adjacent to
farms flowed directly into local streams, or 80 gallons of
runoff for every acre sprayed.
• The owner of a giant pig farm near Napanee, Ont., was
charged in March 1999 with 11 counts of violating the
Fisheries Act, after federal investigators found that
manure-laced effluent pumped off the farm into the
Bay of Quinte’s receiving waters killed fish.
• A 1991 study by the University of Guelph found that
half the wells used for drinking water contained some
bacterial contamination and a third were
contaminated with E. Coli – contamination was
greatest where farming operations spread manure.
In Quebec roughly two-thirds of small pig farms have gone
out of business since 1986, but the average number of pigs
per farm has increased six-fold in the 20 years ending 1996.
Rising public concern about the health and environmental
implications of huge concentrations of pigs has prompted a
group of hog producers in Quebec to announce they will
build an animal waste treatment plant, the first of its kind
in Canada.
Often, waste from hog-farming and cattle-farming
operations is mixed with water and stored in lagoons.
Sometimes this mixture is sprayed on adjacent lands, or
pumped off into nearby streams.
To dilute and then spray manure requires large volumes of
water. For example, Hay Bay Genetics Inc., the Napanee
factory farm charged under the Federal Fisheries Act, has
two water-use permits from Ontario’s Environment
Ministry. The permits allow diversion of 2.16 million
gallons of water per day out of adjacent Hay Bay and a
further 1,440 gallons per day out of a nearby well.
If the ground becomes too saturated with liquefied
manure, underground water sources can become
contaminated. Similarly, if effluent from farms runs off
into streams or is pumped into water bodies, chances are
high that surface water bodies will become contaminated.
Ranging cattle are also a known threat to surface water
sources and have been linked to serious waterborne disease
outbreaks. In the summer of 1996, an estimated 10,000 to
15,000 residents in the B.C. communities of Kelowna and
Cranbrook became sick when local drinking water supplies
were contaminated with the cryptosporidium parasite. It
is believed that the parasite came from ranging cattle.
In Cranbrook’s case, health officials found evidence of ranging
cattle defecating directly into surface water bodies feeding the
city’s reservoir. One or more residents in 2,000-plus
Cranbrook households were estimated to have fallen ill,
suffering diarrhea, nausea, cramps and weight loss. The
suspected source of contamination was cows defecating into a
stream supplying the city’s reservoir.
Cows, particularly calves, are capable of 'shedding' billions
of potentially infective cryptosporidium cysts each day. It
takes as few as 10 cysts to make a human sick. Similarly,
the strain of E. Coli that caused at least seven deaths in
Walkerton and more than 2,000 residents to become sick is
commonly found in cows. Only tiny amounts of the
bacteria are required to cause a person to become ill.
At the same time that factory farms are growing in size,
laws governing the agricultural industry have not changed
to reflect the new reality. As a Globe and Mail article on
the subject noted a week after the Walkerton disaster
became national news:
"Ontario’s so-called right-to-farm laws make it very hard
for folks . . . to make a fuss. Those laws were passed to
protect family farmers from city slickers or anyone else who
complains about odour, dust and other noxious animal
byproducts. The laws were not designed for the modern hog
factory. Meantime, the province’s Environment Ministry
has been gutted. And federal environment cops can only
intervene if farm runoff starts killing fish."
The Second Barrier:
Water Treatment
it is present in the drinking water itself. They sometimes
refer to this as "maintaining a residual."
The second line of defence, water treatment, is itself
multi-layered and usually includes disinfection.
As reported elsewhere, chlorinated water has its own
health risks. The greatest risk involves chlorine binding
with organic particles in the water to form carcinogenic
trihalomethanes. By using filters, water providers can
eliminate most if not all of the organic material and
virtually eliminate THMs. And they can get rid of
protozoa such as cryptosporidium that are highly
resistant to chlorine.
Perhaps the most important factor in treating water is
to ensure that the water itself is free of sediment.
Surface waters are much more likely than groundwater
to experience periodic or chronic turbidity problems.
The authors of the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking
Water emphasize control of sediment and organic
material in water as part of an integrated watertreatment program.
The Guidelines note that cloudy or turbid water "can
serve as a source of nutrients for waterborne bacteria,
viruses and protozoa, which can be embedded in or
adhere to particles in the raw water." This can make it
very difficult to determine what micro-organisms are
actually in the water, because they are attached to, or
obscured by, the particles. Cloudy water can also
undermine the ability of disinfectants to neutralize
pathogens in the water both before and after they enter
distribution systems.
To deal with cloudy water, water providers frequently
use filters of some kind. Filters can remove solid
particles by forcing water to pass through various
mediums including sand, anthracite or other fine
mediums. If water is particularly cloudy, water
providers use one or two other processes in advance of
filtration to allow sediments to settle out of the water or
to be bound together or coagulated so that they are
easier to remove.
Given the effectiveness of many filters, it is possible to
remove virtually all sediments and tiny waterborne
pathogens such as giardia and cryptosporidium. If this
occurs prior to the water entering the distribution
system, it is possible to reduce or eliminate the use of
chemical disinfectants and still provide healthy water.
However, most water providers and public health
officials maintain that some kind of disinfectant should
be used once and possibly twice in the treatment chain.
Disinfectants such as chlorine will kill many microorganisms. The potential for bacteria to re-grow in
pipes carrying water to households is itself regarded by
many water providers and health officials as a possible
(if remote) source of disease outbreaks. Consequently,
water officials advocate putting enough disinfectant into
the water as it enters the pipes so that a tiny amount of
Beyond filtration, several different options are open to
water providers to further disinfect water. These include
chlorine, chlorine dioxide, chloramine, ozone,
ultraviolet light, and activated carbon and ozone.
Various human health risks are associated with each of
these disinfection options. Briefly, here is what each
disinfectant does:
Since the first chlorinating plant opened in Belgium in
1902, chlorine has become one of the most commonly
used water-disinfectants in the world. It took only 40
years, for example, for chlorine to become the
predominant disinfectant of choice in the United States,
where it was used by 85 percent of all of that country’s
water treatment plants by 1941.
Chlorine is very effective in preventing many waterborne
diseases, and can kill most, but not all, waterborne microorganisms. It is cheap, readily available in many parts of
the world, and does not require the infrastructure that
some other disinfectants do.
Chlorine dioxide
Along with ozone, chlorine dioxide is considered an
effective agent in killing problematic 'encysted' parasites
such as cryptosporidium. It has another advantage over
chlorine in that it does not react with other elements in
the water to form THMs.
Chlorine dioxide is several times more expensive than
chlorine and it cannot be transported; therefore it must
be manufactured on site. It is also associated with
certain adverse health effects.
In the early 1980s water providers began using this
disinfectant, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, with
increasing frequency because of concerns over
unwanted by-products associated with chlorine in the
water. It is a powerful disinfectant that, like chlorine,
kills most micro-organisms.
But chloramine is highly toxic to fish and has been
associated with documented fish-kills following leaks or
spills. It also has associated health risks for people.
Compared to chlorine, ozone requires a much shorter
contact time with drinking water. This reduces the need
for pipe infrastructure and land acquisition at the
primary water-treatment site. It is effective in killing
bacteria, viruses and protozoa such as giardia,
cryptosporidium and toxoplasmosis.
Ozone’s drawback is that it oxidizes quickly after use.
Consequently, it has little residual disinfecting power.
Often water providers introduce another chemical to
water following ozone use, generally chlorine. The
chlorine is usually introduced as or after the water has
entered the distribution system. Ozone can be used in
conjunction with activated carbon to treat drinking
water, but it also has health risks.
Ultraviolet light
Ultraviolet light can destroy some bacteria, viruses and
fungi. Lamps containing mercury vapour are used to
generate electromagnetic radiation, which acts as the
disinfectant. UV light is commonly used as a disinfectant
by the beverage industry and is also used in, among other
facilities, fish hatcheries to avoid the use of fish-killing
chemicals such as chlorine.
It does not kill giardia or cryptosporidium, and is
ineffective if there is sediment in the water that can
shield contaminants from the light rays. Like ozone, it
has little or no residual disinfecting power.
The Third Barrier:
A Clean Distribution System
On October 12, 1999, the Federation of Canadian
Municipalities (FCM) submitted a report to federal
finance minister Paul Martin. The federation noted the
pressing demands on municipal governments to invest
in various infrastructure programs, including water
treatment, water distribution, and sewage treatment.
The FCM estimated that an investment of
approximately $13 billion annually over a 10-year
period, or $130 billion in total, is "required to address
the deficit in Canada’s environmental, social and
transportation infrastructure."
A significant component of the money needed is for
water-related infrastructure costs. "There is an
investment shortfall of $16.5 billion in water facilities
(mains, [distribution], storage tanks and treatment
plants) and $36.8 billion in wastewater facilities (sewers,
combined sewer and separations and treatment plants),"
the federation informed Martin.
From the perspective of municipal governments,
demands for infrastructure spending are on the rise.
Only through concerted efforts by the federal,
provincial and municipal governments can those
demands be met.
Clearly, when it comes to designing, building and
operating effective water-distribution systems, money
must be spent to upgrade existing water treatment
systems or to replace them altogether. Further money
must also be spent to replace existing pipes that can
break and potentially cause harmful bacteria to enter
water lines.
Unpopular as it is, this may require increases in federal
and provincial spending and municipal tax hikes,
depending on the urgency and scale of infrastructure
program requirements.
The 2000-2001 federal budget creates a new
infrastructure fund that commits $2.65 billion over the
next six years to various infrastructure programs. The
funding is contingent upon matching funds by
municipal governments and relevant provincial
governments. Up to $600 million, or 22 percent of the
total infrastructure fund, will be made available to
highway improvements, leaving slightly more than $2
billion for other infrastructure programs.
If previous cost-shared programs are an indication,
demand will exceed supply and all levels of government
will spend $2.65 billion, meaning a total expenditure of
nearly $8 billion over the next six years. Impressive as it
sounds, this is less than 62 percent of what the
federation says is needed each year for the next 10 years.
At a time when the federal government and some
provincial governments are spending more of their
growing surpluses on tax cuts rather than meeting
social needs, it is not surprising that the private sector is
now offering to step in and help cash-strapped
municipalities by investing in public infrastructure for
profit. Often this takes the form of offering to design,
build, and finance infrastructure in return for long-term
public-private partnerships of up to 30 years.
Another related development that threatens to expose
public water and wastewater services to privatization is
the downloading of service delivery and responsibilities
from upper tiers of government to the municipal level. In
recent years the federal government has reduced transfers
and grants to the provinces. The provinces, in an uneven
fashion, have responded by downloading services and
responsibilities to municipalities.
The Final Barrier:
Comprehensive Testing
As municipalities are forced to deliver more services and
rely further on revenue from property taxes, many find
it difficult to deal with infrastructure needs. For
instance, the Ontario government reduced funding and
downloaded many services to municipalities in
1996/1997, including water and wastewater services for
small municipalities that had relied on the Ministry of
the Environment and the Ontario Clean Water Agency.
Such downloading made municipal water and
wastewater services more vulnerable to privatization.
In the U.S. and Europe water providers must test for
virtually every contaminant for which a health standard is
set. That is not the case across Canada. The frequency
with which U.S. water providers test for contaminants is
set out in law. The frequency changes based on population
and the specific contaminants tested for. (Testing for
micro-organisms is required more often than is the case
for certain chemicals, for example.)
In British Columbia, the Greater Vancouver area offers a
case in point of the huge costs that confront municipal
and regional governments as they seek to upgrade water
treatment and delivery systems.
This year, new ozone-treatment and corrosion-control
equipment began operating at one of the region’s three
large reservoirs. The cost of installing the new
equipment was $40 million. Similar equipment is to be
installed at a second reservoir at an estimated $90
million, with the job going out to tender later this year.
Beyond that, a fine water filter that will use anthracite to
screen out potentially harmful organic compounds,
sediment, and protozoa among other things, is to be
built at a third reservoir at a projected cost of $135
million. Once that equipment is installed, an estimated
$5-million to $6-million will be spent every year to
operate the new filtration plant.
Periodic declines in water quality due to runoff from
surrounding mountains (which many people attribute
to past logging and road-building activities) may
necessitate construction of filter plants at two other
reservoirs. Beyond these costs, the regional government
has recently installed or upgraded eight 're-chlorination'
plants. Located at various points in the waterdistribution system, the plants add additional chlorine
as insurance against breaks in the water lines that might
re-introduce potentially harmful bacteria to the
drinking water.
No matter how safe a water system may seem, there are
always chances for it to become contaminated. Only
through frequent and rigorous testing can early
detection of waterborne contaminants be made and
potentially disastrous disease outbreaks averted.
In Canada the approach to testing is provincially or
territorially based. Consequently, we have a patchwork of
vastly different testing requirements. In the aftermath of
the Walkerton tragedy, Ontario instituted the most
stringent and comprehensive testing requirements of any
Canadian province or territory. But they are still behind
testing requirements in the U.S., and have no mandatory
testing requirements for radiological contaminants.
Alberta represents a sort of muddy middle. Generally it
requires fairly stringent testing requirements, but the
requirements are set out on a municipality-bymunicipality basis, and the required frequency of testing
is low compared to the U.S. and other jurisdictions.
And there are many jurisdictions — Prince Edward
Island, Newfoundland and Manitoba to name three —
that require little or no testing.
In the coming months, we can expect to hear a lot about
what went wrong in Walkerton in terms of water-testing
and reporting requirements. During a public inquiry
into the disaster, much is likely to be made about who
knew what when. Moreover, once people in the local
Public Utilities Commission, private water-testing
laboratories, and Ontario’s Ministry of Environment
knew of E. Coli’s presence in Walkerton’s water supply,
what were their responsibilities to inform the public?
In the next chapter we examine how the various Canadian
provinces fare when it comes to protecting water sources as
well as what their testing and reporting regimes are. We
also examine the Guidelines (which are not legally binding
but have been adopted by the provinces of Alberta, Nova
Scotia and Quebec) and compare them to those in the
United States and the European Economic Community.
IV Waterproof:
A Comparison of Drinking Water Regulations
anadians view their country as blessed with an
abundance of clean water. But in many places,
Canadians cannot safely drink the water that comes
directly from their lakes, streams and wells. Urban,
industrial, and agricultural developments are just a few
of the reasons why many water supplies once considered
safe are no longer.
Providing good tap water is a challenging task. It
requires identifying and protecting appropriate water
sources, treating and testing water, and safely
distributing that water to homes. Any change to the
proper functioning of the system that poses health risks
must be promptly reported and publicized. As well,
provincial regulators must have adequate powers to
prevent and correct problems when they occur.
This report identifies a number of standards and
protections for drinking water, as well as evaluating
provincial and territorial performance in meeting those
standards. Specifically, it looks at protecting drinking water
sources, water testing and treatment, construction and
operation of water-delivery systems, reporting water testing
discretionary allows for potential human error,
something that became apparent during the Walkerton
tragedy. Prior to the Walkerton case, Ontario’s
protections and standards, including contaminant
standards and water testing, were either discretionary or
enacted in the form of non-binding guidelines. To its
credit, Ontario responded to the Walkerton tragedy by
revising and strengthening its regulations.
It seems indisputable that the best regulatory approach to
safe drinking water is to make drinking water protections
and standards binding and enforceable. If it is thought
that certain protections may not be needed in all cases,
the best approach is to enact a binding standard, with
exemptions available under certain conditions.
Fortunately, discretionary or inadequate provincial
regulation does not always translate into poor water
quality. During our research, we were impressed with the
number of municipalities that provide drinking water
protection and treatment far in excess of what is required
by the respective provincial governments. For example,
although British Columbia receives a D in this report,
Providing good tap water requires identifying and
protecting appropriate water sources, treating and
testing water, and safely distributing that water.
results, and the ability (legally speaking) of provincial
regulators to ensure that water providers do a good job.
In most provinces and territories, the level of drinking
water protection offered is at the discretion of a
government official. Making public safety protections
Vancouver and Victoria, if ranked separately, would
receive higher grades because of the mechanisms they
have in place to protect water supplies. Strong drinking
water regulations may not dramatically improve water
quality in those municipalities already doing a good job,
but they may prevent tragedies elsewhere.
1.Protection of Drinking
Water Sources
Water providers are in a much better position to control
the quality of drinking water if they already have or select
a water supply that is generally free of chemical,
microbiological and radiological contaminants. Once such
a source is found it should be protected at all costs,
because that lessens the chance of waterborne disease
outbreaks. Secondly, protection of such a source decreases
the need for unnecessary and costly water treatment.
Unfortunately, this logical, up-front approach to
providing safe drinking water is not always followed.
Sometimes, Canadian regulators approve waterworks or
allow the taps to be turned on without a complete
picture of the water quality at its source. Our research
has found that no provincial or territorial legislation
requires that all parameters in the Guidelines for
Canadian Drinking Water Quality be analyzed as part of
the permitting or approval process. Some jurisdictions
require testing of a smaller number of contaminants
(N.W.T. and Nunavut require testing of 25
contaminants, which is the highest mandatory preapproval testing requirement we found), while most
jurisdictions require water quality analysis on a case-bycase basis. Imposing public health requirements or
determining criteria for approving drinking water
sources on a case-by-case basis is problematic. For this
type of system to function properly, provincial agencies
must be adequately staffed and agency officials must be
properly trained. Agency staff must also have intimate
knowledge of natural formations around water supplies
and a good understanding of past and present land use
activities that could affect water quality. Comprehensive
testing at the approval stage would eliminate the risks
posed by inadequate information or oversight.
Equally important to selecting a high quality water
source is preventing future contamination of that
source. Obviously, one mechanism that may be available
in many jurisdictions is for municipalities to purchase
watershed lands or areas surrounding wells. In some
cases such as Saint John, New Brunswick, an ongoing
program is in place to do just that.
But what other legal means may be open to protect
water supplies? The Northwest Territories and Nunavut
have potentially the most significant regulation in
Canada for the protection of surface water. Their Chief
Medical Health Officer is empowered to stop any
activity or proposed activity that “may adversely affect
the quality of the raw water.” Only Manitoba, New
Brunswick, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have
enacted legislation allowing for the creation of
protected watersheds or wellfields. A legally recognized
watershed or wellfield designation can ensure that
potentially harmful land use activities are controlled in
situations where the municipality does not own the
land. Newfoundland, according to our count, has
identified 265 such areas that can harm drinking water.
Other jurisdictions, such as Quebec, place limits on the
activities that may be conducted within a certain
distance from a well.
Furthermore, no provincial or territorial government
has a stand-alone, designated agency responsible for
protecting all aspects of drinking water. Recently, British
Columbia’s Auditor General identified the lack of such
an agency as a serious impediment to the protection of
drinking water supplies.
• Testing for all parameters in the Guidelines for
Canadian Drinking Water Quality should be part
of the approval process.
• All jurisdictions should have mandatory protection
for watersheds and wellfields that supply
drinking water. This protection should include a
mandatory designation of the land areas that
influence water quality as well as an assessment
of all existing and potential risks to drinking
water quality. Further, watershed or wellfield
representatives should have authority to fully
participate in government decisions about landuse activities that may affect the watershed.
2.Water Quality Testing
Health Canada has identified more than 80 harmful
substances that are commonly found in drinking water.
By no means comprehensive, this list includes items such
as micro-organisms and bacteria, pesticides, heavy
metals, petroleum by-products and radioactive materials.
Gastrointestinal illnesses are commonly associated with
waterborne microbiological contaminants such as
giardia, and usually surface within a few days of a person
drinking unsafe water. Other serious illnesses are
associated with the long-term ingestion of waterborne
chemicals and other contaminants. These illnesses
include some types of cancer, liver and kidney disorders,
birth defects, and others. Many of the illnesses triggered
by long-term exposure to unsafe drinking water involve
contaminants that are colourless, odourless and tasteless.
Frequent and stringent testing is the only way to determine
whether these agents are present in water, making it unsafe to
drink. Yet sampling for chemical contaminants is only
required for all public water systems in four of the provinces.
Drinking water protections may be created through laws
(enacted by the provincial legislature), regulations
(generally created by an agency or the provincial cabinet
and approved by the provincial cabinet), permit or
approval requirements, and guidelines (sometimes called
objectives or protocols, which are created by an agency).
There are important distinctions between laws, regulations,
permit standards and guidelines. Laws, regulations and
permit standards may create legally binding and
enforceable standards and requirements, meaning that if
your water provider is not meeting the relevant standards,
enforcement action can be taken. Guidelines, on the other
hand, are not generally binding. If your province or
territory has established guidelines only, your water
provider does not have to meet those guidelines.
Table I below sets out the most relevant laws, regulations or
guidelines, and the binding water testing requirements for
each province or territory. As with many of the categories
we survey, an individual municipality’s standards may be
higher or lower than the province or territory-wide
standard because of permit or approval conditions. Also,
the testing standards listed below may not apply to
systems falling below a certain size threshold.
Ten of the provinces and territories we surveyed have
mandatory sampling requirements related to
microbiological contaminants. They are B.C., Manitoba,
the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Ontario
(post-Walkerton), Quebec, Saskatchewan and the Yukon.
Two provinces, Alberta and New Brunswick, have no
mandatory sampling, but may impose sampling
requirements on a discretionary basis. Five provinces or
territories (the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia,
Nunavut, Ontario-post-Walkerton, Quebec and Yukon.)
require some form of testing for physical and chemical
contaminants, while the Yukon requires testing for
chemical contaminants. Two other provinces,
Newfoundland and PEI, do not impose sampling
requirements on either a mandatory or discretionary
basis. On the basis of mandatory sampling requirements
(for both contaminants and frequency of testing)
Ontario has the strongest regulation, followed by Quebec.
Table I: Testing Requirements
Standards and Testing Requirements
Alberta: Environmental Protection
and Enhancement Act; Potable
Water Regulation. (Sources cited in
Water quality must meet the microbiological, chemical and radiological characteristics in
the Canadian Guidelines. The director of Alberta Environment determines the parameters
that must be analyzed for each municipality. Surface waters are monitored twice per year
and groundwater monitored once per year.
British Columbia: Health Act; Safe
Drinking Water Regulation.
Water quality must meet a coliform standard. Other standards may be imposed on a caseby-case basis. The frequency of sampling is discretionary.
Manitoba: Health Act; Water
Supplies Regulation; Water Works
Regulation; Protection of Drinking
Water Supplies Regulation.
Testing for chlorine residuals and microbiological sampling is required and the frequency is
mandated; all other testing is discretionary.
Newfoundland: Environment Act;
Health Act; Sanitation Regulation.
No testing required. The provincial government may undertake some testing.
New Brunswick: Clean Water Act;
Health Act; Potable Water
Regulation; Water Quality
Regulation; Water Well Regulation.
Water quality standards and sampling frequency is discretionary. Public water suppliers
must have an approved sampling plan.
NW Territories: Health Act; Public
Water Supplies Regulation.
Operators are required to ensure tests are performed monthly for coliforms and annually
for 25 chemical and physical parameters.
Table I: Testing Requirements (cont.)
Standards and Testing Requirements
Nova Scotia: Environment Act;
Water and Wastewater Facility
Regulations; Guidelines for
Monitoring Public Drinking
Water Supplies.
Disinfection residual testing, turbidity sampling and fluoride level sampling (if used) is required
daily. Microbiological sampling must meet Canadian Guidelines (population based). Thirty
chemical and physical parameters must be sampled, once a year for surface water, and once
every two years for groundwater. Water providers have an obligation to provide water which
meets the microbiological, chemical and physical contaminant standards of the Guidelines for
Canadian Drinking Water Quality.
Nunavut: uses N.W.T. regulation:
Health Act; Public Water
Supplies Regulation.
Operators are required to ensure tests are performed monthly for coliforms and annually
for 25 chemical and physical parameters.
Ontario (pre-Walkerton):
Ontario Water Resources Act;
Water Works Regulation; Ont.
Drinking Water Standards; Ont.
Water Quality Objectives
Testing is discretionary. Non-binding objectives have been developed by the government,
but these standards are only applicable if required by an individual permit.
Ontario (post-Walkerton, effective
2002): Ontario Water Resources Act;
Water Works Regulation; Drinking
Water Protection Regulation; Ont.
Drinking Water Standards; Ont.
Water Quality Objectives.
Ontario’s new Drinking Water Protection Regulation, which will become effective in
January of 2002, sets out new testing requirements. Binding testing requirements will be
in effect (except in the case of small systems, for example, serving less than five
residences) for microbiological characteristics, chlorine residuals, volatile organic
compounds, inorganic chemicals, nitrates, and pesticides. Radiological contaminant testing
is not mandatory, but may be required on a case-by-case basis. The frequency of testing
varies by type of contaminant and the population served by the water system, but the
frequency of testing is rigorous compared to other Canadian jurisdictions.
PEI: Environmental Protection Act;
Health Act.
Sampling not required.
Quebec: Reglement sur l’eau
There is mandatory testing for 46 contaminant standards. The frequency of testing varies
by type of contaminant and the population served by the water systems. Water providers
are legally obligated to provide water that meets Quebec’s contaminant standards.
(Proposed legislation will raise the number of contaminant standards to 77 and implement
mandatory controls for turbidity, trihalomethanes and E.coli.)
Saskatchewan: Environmental
Management and Protection Act;
Water Pollution Control and
Waterworks Regulations.
Bacteriological testing after water system construction or alteration required. Daily chlorine
residual testing required. All other testing is discretionary. Saskatchewan has created
Municipal Drinking Water Quality Objectives, but these are not binding unless an approval
or operating permit specifies.
Yukon: Public Health and Safety
Act; Yukon Waters Act.
Coliform testing required and frequency is based upon population. Chlorine residual
testing is required. Some monitoring of physical characteristics is required. Chemical and
radiological testing is discretionary.
United States:
Testing for over 80 parameters (microbiological, chemical and radiological) is required. The
frequency for testing is population based.
European Union, starting 2003:
Testing for over 45 parameters (microbiological, chemical and radiological) is required. The
frequency for testing is population based
• Provinces and territories should require testing, at appropriate frequencies, for all contaminants listed in
the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.
• Exemptions from testing for certain contaminants should be granted only where there is a history of clean
tests and there are no ongoing human activities which could affect drinking water quality.
Regulation of testing laboratories
Certification or accreditation of water sampling labs
ensures that the labs selected to analyze critical health
threats have trained staff, proper equipment and the
appropriate procedures that will produce accurate
results. Accreditation of labs may be accomplished
through government or private sector programs.
According to our survey, five jurisdictions require the
use of accredited labs: British Columbia, New
Brunswick, Ontario (effective early 2001), Quebec and
the Yukon. Six other jurisdictions attempt to ensure
accuracy by testing drinking water at provincial labs or
at labs suitable to the relevant agency. These
jurisdictions include: Alberta, Manitoba,
Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Nunavut and
Saskatchewan. The Northwest Territories does not
require certified labs or select water testing labs.
Alberta: Microbiological samples must be tested at the
provincial lab (water providers are not charged for these
tests). Other types of testing must be performed at a lab
approved by the Director (as named under the Potable
Water Regulation) or by an approved analytical method.
There is currently no lab accreditation program.
British Columbia: Testing must be performed at
accredited labs.
Manitoba: The provincial government selects (by
contract) the labs where testing is performed. There is
no requirement that the labs themselves be accredited.
Newfoundland: The use of accredited labs is not required,
but testing performed by the province is done at the
provincial lab or another accredited lab. (Generally,
however, Newfoundland does not require testing, although
it undertakes some testing itself.)
New Brunswick: Testing must be performed at
accredited labs.
Ontario: Currently, the use of accredited labs is not
required. Effective Feb. 28, 2001, testing must be
performed at an accredited lab.
Northwest Territories: The use of accredited labs is
not required.
Nova Scotia: Labs need not be accredited, but water
suppliers must conduct testing at labs acceptable to the
Department of Environment. The province’s lab
accreditation policy is being drafted.
Nunavut: Testing must be performed at labs run by
the territory.
PEI: The use of accredited labs is not required.
Quebec: The use of accredited labs is required.
Saskatchewan: The use of accredited labs is not
required; however, testing is generally done at the
provincial lab or a lab acceptable to the province.
Yukon: Testing must be performed at an accredited lab.
• Provinces should require that all water
testing is performed at accredited labs,
or when testing is performed by the water
supplier, by accredited personnel.
3.Water Treatment
Effective water treatment ensures that any contaminated
water is purified and made potable. From a general
regulatory standpoint, water treatment can be
approached in two ways. First, water providers may be
required to treat water with specific methods. For
example, introducing chlorine and maintaining a
chlorine residual throughout the water distribution
system is required in some jurisdictions. Second,
regulations may establish certain standards (for
example, no faecal coliforms), but leave the choice of
how to meet them up to the water provider. (See Table
I, Testing Requirements.)
Table II below sets out the province or territory-wide
water treatment requirements found in Canada. All
provinces and territories except Newfoundland, New
Brunswick and Prince Edward Island require
disinfection of water supplies. Only two provinces,
Alberta and Ontario (effective 2002), require filtration.
(The benefits of filtration are discussed in Chapter III.)
Table II: Treatment Requirements
Water Treatment Requirements
Disinfection is required for both groundwater and surface water. Chemically-assisted
filtration or slow-sand filtration is required for surface water. The province regulates
treatment techniques.
British Columbia
Disinfection (chlorination or other approved disinfection) is required.
Chlorination is required.
There is no mandatory treatment requirement.
New Brunswick
There are no mandatory requirements for treatment, although treatment may be required
through the approval process for individual municipal water systems.
NW Territories
Chlorination is required.
Nova Scotia
Chlorination is required.
Chlorination is required.
Ontario (pre- Walkerton)
No treatment required.
Ontario (post- Walkerton)
Groundwater must be chlorinated. Surface water must be chlorinated and subjected to
chemically assisted filtration.
No treatment required.
There are no specific treatment requirements, but water quality must meet specified
parameters (there are currently 46 parameters and there is a proposal to increase that
number to 77).
Chlorination is required.
No treatment required.
• Disinfection should be required for all water supplies, and provinces and territories should explore using
disinfection methods other than chlorine where applicable.
• Filtration should be required for surface water supplies and groundwater supplies subject to the influence
of surface waters.
4.Construction and Operation of
Water Delivery Systems
Regulatory control over construction and
operation of water supply systems
It may seem obvious to state that the purpose of water
treatment and supply facilities is to ensure the delivery of
safe, clean water. What is less obvious is that the facilities
themselves can be health hazards. An example of this occurs
when municipalities try to economize on infrastructure costs
by placing sewer pipes and drinking water pipes in the same
trench. Under the right circumstances a broken sewer line
can contaminate a drinking water line. Additionally, a poorly
designed, constructed or maintained plant may not actually
protect drinking water.
The potential for harm from drinking water treatment
materials is serious enough that the federal government has
proposed the Drinking Water Materials Safety Act which
would prescribe national, health-based standards for drinking
water materials, (which include water system components,
water treatment devices and chemical additives). The Act
would require third-party certification of all drinking water
materials before they are imported to or sold in Canada.
Unfortunately, guaranteeing the safety of drinking water
materials does not seem to be a priority for the federal
government, and the proposed Drinking Water Materials
Safety Act has languished since it was introduced in 1997.
According to the Alberta Law Centre, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency previously provided to
the provinces information on what kinds of additives and
materials may be used to achieve safe drinking water
standards. However, the EPA’s advice program ended in
1998. Only a few of the provinces and territories now
regulate or approve drinking water materials.
Table III below lists the requirements that provinces and
territories have enacted for water treatment system
design, construction and materials standards.
Table III: Regulation of Water System Design and Construction
Design, Construction and Materials Standards
Alberta requires an approval as a prerequisite to operating a drinking water system.
Pursuant to the Potable Water Regulation, all water treatment systems must be designed,
constructed and operated in accordance with standards issued by Alberta. Additionally,
either the Environment Ministry or the independent, U.S.-based, National Sanitation
Foundation must approve all chemicals used for water treatment.
British Columbia
B.C. requires both a construction permit and an operating permit. Provincial regulators review
construction plans prior to issuing a construction permit. However, there are no binding
standards related to design, construction, materials, or treatment methods or additives.
The Minister of Health must approve plans and specifications before a public water system
can be constructed, operated or altered. However, there are no binding standards related
to design, construction, materials, or treatment methods or additives.
The Minister of Environment must approve plans and specifications before a public water
system can be constructed, operated or altered. However, there are no binding standards
related to design, construction, materials, or treatment methods or additives.
New Brunswick
New Brunswick regulates water system design and construction. There are construction
and materials standards for wells, but not for water treatment systems.
NW Territories
Approval to construct a drinking water treatment system is required and there are binding
requirements with respect to construction standards and materials.
Nova Scotia
Public water systems must be classified (based on population served) and registered with the
province. There are no binding standards regarding design, construction, or materials used.
Approval is required. There are binding requirements with respect to construction
standards and materials.
Ontario (pre- Walkerton)
The establishment, alteration, extension or repair of water works requires an approval
issued by the Environment Ministry. Plans and specifications for water works may be
reviewed during the approval process. There are no binding standards for design,
construction or materials.
Ontario (post- Walkerton)
The establishment, alteration, extension or repair of waterworks requires an approval issued by
the Environment Ministry. Plans and specifications for water works may be reviewed during
the approval process. There are no binding standards for design, construction or materials.
Approvals are not required and there are no binding standards for design, construction
or materials.
The construction or operation of public waterworks requires approval and there are
binding standards regarding design, construction and materials.
The construction or operation of public waterworks requires approval and there are
binding standards regarding design, construction and materials.
Approvals are not required and there are no binding standards for design, construction
or materials.
• Provinces and territories should enact binding standards for the design, construction and operation of
drinking water treatment facilities and distribution systems.
• The federal government should enact binding standards or approval processes for materials used in
drinking water treatment and distribution.
• The federal government should evaluate and approve drinking water testing and treatment methods.
Certification of operators
The best designed water treatment and delivery facility
is of little benefit if the people running the system are
not properly trained and certified. Operator training
and certification is considered such an important issue
in the United States that individual states must establish
mandatory training and certification programs in order
to be eligible for certain infrastructure grants.
In Canada, only Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario
require the use of certified operators. However, Ontario
exempted some operators from training and certification
requirements because they were already employed. In
Quebec an operator certification program is proposed,
while Saskatchewan's recent regulatory changes will
require that all municipal water facilities come under the
direction of a certified operator within five years.
• Provinces and territories should require that
drinking water treatment and distribution
facilities are operated by adequately trained and
certified personnel.
5.Reporting Requirements
As became evident after the Walkerton tragedy, prompt
reporting of water testing results can go a long way toward
avoiding waterborne disease outbreaks. Yet in most
provinces and territories, there is no requirement for the
public to be promptly notified when water contamination
occurs. Some provinces require that certain government
officials are notified in the event of poor test results. But
not all provinces and territories require government
officials to automatically notify the public and public
notification (including boil-water alerts) is only issued if
the relevant agency feels it is necessary.
Such discretion is not allowed in the United States or
European Union, where direct notification of the public is
required. Some provinces have also adopted mandatory
public notification of health threats. Ontario’s new
Drinking Water Protection Regulation requires warning
notices to be posted if the sampling, analysis or corrective
actions related to microbiological contamination have not
occurred. Nova Scotia has developed guidelines which state
when boil-water alerts are required, a communication
plan, suggested wording for the alert and follow-up
activities. However, these guidelines are not legally binding.
The requirement that only government officials be notified,
without notification being given to the public, may have led
to tragic consequences in the Walkerton E. coli outbreak.
Even prior to the outbreak, water samples sent to a private
lab between January and April tested positive for E. coli
bacteria. Government regulators had been notified of those
results. However, this potentially crucial information was
given to the public only after people became very ill or died,
prompting the local public health unit to conduct and
announce the results of its own testing.
The need to report goes beyond informing consumers
of immediate health threats. It is also important that
consumers be informed of the overall quality of their
drinking water. Both the U.S. and European Union
require water suppliers to provide 'right-to-know'
reports, which summarize water quality testing results
and compare the quality of their water with the relevant
standards. In the U.S., these reports are required
annually, while in the European Union, such reports
must be delivered every three years, starting in 2003.
Some Canadian cities, such as Victoria, Vancouver, and
Edmonton, are now preparing right-to-know reports.
Ontario’s new Drinking Water Protection Regulation
requires right-to-know reports to be issued quarterly.
New Brunswick is unusual in having something that could
be described as an 'no-right-to-know' provision. Under
Section 6 of the New Brunswick Potable Water Regulation,
health and environment officials are specifically prohibited
from disclosing the results of a sample of well water to
anyone but the well owner, unless the owner consents.
There is no exception in the regulation for public water
supplies that serve persons other than the owners of the
well. This could be particularly problematic in instances
where the public may drink from a privately-owned well at
a gas station or campground, for example, or when a
municipality’s water system is privatized.
Table IV below lists provincial and territorial standards
for reporting of testing results, water quality threats,
and the provision of right-to-know reports. Almost all
jurisdictions, with the exception of P.E.I. and the Yukon,
require the reporting of test results to the provincial
government. Newfoundland performs testing itself, and
Manitoba receives test results from a private lab which
has a contract to undertake water-quality testing.
However, only British Columbia, Ontario (postWalkerton), Quebec, and Saskatchewan have any legally
binding requirements that water-quality concerns be
brought to the attention of consumers. Ontario is the
only Canadian jurisdiction that requires the preparation
of right-to-know reports. Ontario also requires that
water suppliers make testing reports and approvals
available for inspection by the public.
Table IV: Reporting Requirements
Mandatory reporting of test results to government officials? Mandatory consumer
notification of health threats? Right-to-know report required?
Routine water testing results must be reported to the provincial government. Any
malfunction of the plant must be reported to government officials. There is no requirement
that water contamination or equipment malfunctions be reported to consumers. There is
no requirement for the preparation of a public right-to-know report.
British Columbia
Routine water testing results must be reported to the provincial government where testing
is required. Public notification of potential health threats must be provided. Equipment
malfunctions must be reported to government, but there is no corresponding requirement
for public notification. There is no requirement for the preparation of a public right-toknow report.
The province contracts with labs for microbiological testing and these results are reported
to the provincial government. There is no requirement that water contamination or
equipment malfunctions be reported to consumers. There is no requirement for the
preparation of a public right-to-know report.
There is no requirement that routine test results be reported to government, however, the
province does most testing. There is no requirement that water contamination or
equipment malfunctions be reported to consumers. There is no requirement for the
preparation of a public right-to-know report. Newfoundland has made the results of
testing for trihalomethanes available on the Internet.
New Brunswick
Routine water testing results must be reported to the provincial government. There is no
requirement that water contamination or equipment malfunctions be reported to
consumers. There is no requirement for the preparation of a public right-to-know report.
NW Territories
Routine water testing results must be reported to the territorial government. There is no
requirement that water contamination or equipment malfunctions be reported to
consumers. There is no requirement for the preparation of a public right-to-know report.
Nova Scotia
Routine water testing results must be reported to the provincial government, as do specific
water quality concerns. Nova Scotia’s guidelines also contain directions for issuing boil
water alerts, but these are not legally binding. There is no requirement for the preparation
of a public right-to-know report.
Routine water testing results must be reported to the province. There is no requirement
that water contamination or equipment malfunctions be reported to consumers. There is
no requirement for the preparation of a public right-to-know report.
Ontario (pre- Walkerton)
No required reporting of testing results or water quality threats. Public notification is
not required.
Ontario (post-Walkerton)
Routine water testing results must be reported to the provincial government, as do cases
of suspected contamination. Public notification of microbiological threats is required. Water
treatment facilities must make available for inspection by the public all testing results and
approvals. Right-to-know reports must be prepared on a quarterly basis.
Water suppliers must report violations of contaminant standards. Boil water alerts are
required in certain circumstances, and the procedure and public notification requirements are
legally binding. There is no requirement for the preparation of a public right-to-know report.
Routine water test results are reported at the request of the provincial government. Water
suppliers must also report violations of contaminant standards to government. Results
must be reported on request or upon violation of contaminant standards. Water suppliers
must notify the public when contaminant standards are exceeded three times in 30 days.
There is no requirement for the preparation of a right-to-know report.
Routine testing results and violations of water quality standards must be reported to
territorial officials. There is no requirement for the preparation of a right-to-know report.
• Provinces and territories should require that
water suppliers report test results, missed
sampling and equipment failures to provincial
or territorial agencies.
• Provinces and territories should develop
programs for random sampling and inspection,
with clear follow-up actions required in cases of
• Provinces and territories should require that water
suppliers make system approvals and testing
results readily available to the public, and that
suppliers prepare right-to-know reports.
• Provinces and territories should require
the preparation of plans to deal with water
quality emergencies and should require water
suppliers to keep back-up treatment parts on
hand where appropriate.
6.Regulatory Supervision
Routine inspection and water sampling by provincial
agencies is essential for monitoring potential problems.
These inspections cannot replace the regular system of
monitoring that must be in place at the water supply facility,
but they are an important addition to a good water
protection regime. Other mechanisms, such as the power of
provincial regulators to order corrective measures or perform
the work themselves, offer another essential level of
protection. Such orders may extend to requiring water
suppliers to have back-up water treatment equipment on
hand in the event of a breakdown in the main system.
Government inspections will only be useful if the
information is sent to the appropriate people and immediate,
effective measures are taken to correct any problems.
Virtually all provinces that we surveyed gave provincial or
territorial agencies the right to conduct sampling or
inspections and allowed government officials to require
corrective actions to protect drinking water safety. The
adequacy of provincial and territorial efforts depends
upon the vigilance with which officials approach their
jobs, an issue beyond the scope of our survey. For example,
any province or territory could issue boil water alerts, but
the number of boil water alerts per year ranges from zero
in some jurisdictions to several hundred per year in others.
It is unlikely that this range could be completely explained
by a lack of water quality problems in some jurisdictions
and low quality water in others.
We surveyed whether or not a government requires the
development of plans to deal with drinking water quality
emergencies, and whether water suppliers are required to
keep back-up parts or entire treatment works on hand to
address equipment failures varies with the province or
territory. Two jurisdictions, B.C. and Nova Scotia, require
the preparation of emergency plans. Six jurisdictions,
Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, N.W.T., Nova Scotia
and Nunavut require at least some back-up parts to be
kept on hand for water treatment facilities.
The United States of Safe Water
The United States sets the standard for regulated
protection of drinking water, surpassing Canada in several
important respects.
It is a world leader in establishing strong and
comprehensive requirements for
• restrictions on contaminants;
• water-treatment techniques;
• water testing and reporting.
The U.S. also provides water consumers with the right to
bring legal actions against water providers that fail to
enforce drinking water standards: a right denied to
Canadian consumers.
Minimum standards for U.S. drinking water safety are
established under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act,
administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Individual states may apply to receive federal approval
to implement a drinking water program only if they
do three things:
• adopt standards that meet or exceed federal standards;
• have adequate enforcement and record-keeping
• provide clean drinking water in an emergency
With the exception of Wyoming and the District of
Columbia, all 56 states, commonwealths and territories
have received this federal approval.
U.S. water regulations cover a wide range of issues from
source water protection, to specified water treatments
for contaminants such as giardia, Legionella and certain
viruses, to building and operating water delivery
systems, to monitoring and testing drinking water,
to reporting requirements.
Under the Safe Drinking Act, states must establish
operator-training and certification programs and they can
only employ trained and certified operators. Otherwise,
they risk losing federal funding.
The Act also requires states to establish "wellhead
protection" programs that prevent the entry of
contaminants into wells. All sources of potential
contamination in a wellhead area must be identified.
Similarly, the Act requires each state to look at sources of
surface water and determine how susceptible these water
bodies are to possible contamination.
Such provisions reflect a commitment to protect drinking
water sources rather than simply treating the end product.
The Federal Government's Role in
Drinking Water Protection
Drinking water regulations are almost always enacted at
the provincial or territorial levels. However, federal,
provincial or territorial and local governments all have a
role to play in ensuring drinking water safety. Federally,
Health Canada has issued guidelines establishing
contaminant standards and locally, individual
municipalities own and operate water treatment
facilities. And, all three levels of government have powers
concerning land uses that may affect local water bodies.
Under Canada’s division of powers, provincial and
territorial governments clearly have jurisdiction to
undertake regulation of drinking water. However, it is
arguable that the federal government could regulate
some aspects of drinking water provision pursuant to its
jurisdiction over food and drug standards (part of the
'criminal law' power). Some would argue that, given the
disparate performance of the provinces and territories,
the federal government should be regulating drinking
water providers.
While it seems unlikely that the federal government will
take drinking water regulation away from the provinces,
there are at least two steps that the federal government
could take to improve drinking water. First, it could set
minimum standards and requirements related to
drinking water which provinces or territories must
meet. Second, the federal government could make
funding designated for drinking water infrastructure
(which, as described in Chapter III, is desperately
needed) contingent upon the creation or
implementation of drinking water protection, including
such things as operator training programs.
• The federal government should enact binding
drinking water quality standards.
• The federal government should increase federal
funding for the construction and renewal of
water treatment and delivery infrastructure, and
make the funding contingent on meeting water
protection requirements.
V Water Marks:
National Drinking Water Report Card
In the inaugural National Drinking Water Report Card
we based our evaluation on the following criteria:
Jurisdictions were evaluated both on the frequency of
their testing and what they looked for in water samples.
Watershed and Wellfield Protection
Water Treatment
Proper water treatment involves a range of activities
that include but are not limited to protecting water
sources, filtering water, chemically or otherwise
disinfecting water, re-disinfecting that water as it enters
the pipes that deliver it to households and businesses,
and maintaining water-distribution lines.
ater providers often talk about a 'treatment chain.'
When each link in the chain, beginning with the
water source itself and extending through to the water
flowing from your household tap, is properly
maintained, high quality water is almost guaranteed.
The first link in that chain is the water supply itself. If
efforts succeed in preventing harmful land-uses from
degrading surface or groundwater supplies, treating and
delivering clean water is that much easier.
The task of protecting surface and groundwater is often
difficult in the absence of legislation allowing for
watersheds and wellfields to be designated protected.
Stringency of Testing
No water supply can be considered safe unless it is tested
regularly for a broad range of possible contaminants.
Jurisdictions were evaluated on what they required by
way of treatment.
Operator Training and
Jurisdictions were evaluated on whether or not they
required the people and agencies charged with
delivering water to be trained and certified. They were
also evaluated on whether they required certification of
laboratories doing water testing.
The task of protecting surface and groundwater is often
difficult in the absence of legislation.
Proper testing looks for microbiological contaminants
such as giardia or E. coli, physical contaminants such as
tiny organic particles that can mask disease-causing
microbiological or chemical contaminants, chemical
contaminants that may be present in such things as
pesticides and industrial effluents, and naturally occurring
or industrially-derived radiological contaminants.
Reporting Requirements and
the Public Right to Know
Depending on the jurisdiction, there are many different
requirements for when water quality information must
be given to health and government officials, and when
the public must be informed.
Listed below are the provincial and territorial summaries.
Each grade is followed by a list highlighting individual
strengths and weaknesses.
In many cases, the grades arrived at are similar. But the
reasons for the grades vary. The highest grade awarded
in this inaugural report card is a B, as measured against
the United States, which under our scale would receive
an A. (While the U.S. system still needs refining, its
comprehensive approach to water protection remains
far stronger than in Canada.)
• B.C.’s regulation only addresses microbiological
contamination (coliforms). Other bacteriological,
physical, chemical and radiological contamination is
not addressed.
• Testing requirements and frequency are discretionary.
• There are no operator training or certification
Comment: Not bottom of the class, but …
Comment: With Quebec and Ontario, the best of a bad lot.
• Water suppliers are required to meet standards set out
in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.
• Testing methods and system designs must be approved.
• Operator training and certification is required.
• Disinfection and filtration are required.
• Alberta is the only jurisdiction to have performance
standards for giardia and virus reduction.
• There is no mechanism for protecting watersheds
or wellfields.
Actual testing requirements are discretionary (however,
testing requirements are set after all parameters have
been analyzed), and the minimum frequency of testing in
the regulations is low.
• Testing results must be reported to the province.
• No operator training or certification programs
(although this is under consideration).
There is no requirement that testing be done at
accredited labs.
Comment: Strengths outweighed by serious weaknesses.
• Watershed and wellfield protection is available under
the Clean Water Act.
• New Brunswick requires an approved 'sampling
plan' (however, the requirements of the sampling
plan for each community are at the discretion of
government officials).
Comment: Rich province, poor regulations.
• New Brunswick requires the use of certified labs.
• Water purveyors are required to disinfect water supplies.
• Testing results must be reported to government.
• There is mandatory reporting of test results to health
officials and public notification must be given of
potential health threats. Health officials must also be
informed of equipment failures.
• Disinfection, and testing for disinfection residuals,
is mandatory.
New Brunswick
• Alberta does not have clear, legislated standards for
public reporting and public notification.
British Columbia
• Manitoba has enacted some protections for
watersheds and wellfields.
• No clear standards for public notification of
problems or potential problems with drinking water.
• There are no mandatory standards for treatment
(treatment requirements may be imposed through
the approval process).
• Operator certification is required.
Comment: Should do more homework.
• Test results must be reported to provincial officials,
and the boil-water procedure has been codified.
• Under provincial legislation, watersheds and
wellfields may be protected. Newfoundland has
created 250 such areas.
• There is no lab certification policy (although one is
being drafted); however, testing must be conducted at
a lab acceptable to government.
• Testing is done at the provincial lab.
• No mandatory testing for the majority of standards
in the Canadian Guidelines.
• Newfoundland is posting the results of
trihalomethane testing on the Internet.
• All testing is discretionary.
Note: Nunavut uses N.W.T. regulation. See above.
• Treatment is discretionary.
Northwest Territories
Ontario: Pre-revision
Post-revision (effective 2002)
Comment: No longer a regulatory deep-freeze.
• Operators are required to ensure tests are preformed
monthly for coliforms and annually for 25 chemical
and physical parameters.
• Disinfection (chlorination) is required.
• Testing labs must be certified.
• Operator certification and training is required.
• Provincial government reviews test results.
• Ontario water quality objectives are not binding
or enforceable.
• No watershed/wellfield protection.
• No operator training or use of accredited labs.
• Mandatory water quality testing is not required.
• No mandatory provisions for public notification.
Nova Scotia
Comment: After a hard lesson, showing improvement.
Comment: Has recently pulled up its socks.
• There is no statutory provision for watershed or
wellfield protection.
• Testing labs must be certified.
• Protection for watersheds and wellfields is available
(but not mandatory).
• Results must be routinely reported to environment
ministry and in cases of suspected contamination.
• Disinfection is required and disinfection residual
testing must be performed daily.
• Right-to-know provisions guarantee public access to
water-quality reports.
• Microbiological sampling frequency must meet
population-based Canadian Guidelines.
• Mandatory water treatment prescribed: groundwater
must be chlorinated and surface water must be
chlorinated and filtered.
• Chemical and physical parameters must be testing
once a year for surface water, and once every two
years for groundwater.
• Water suppliers must meet the Canadian Guidelines
standards for 30 chemical and physical parameters.
• Public notification of water quality problems is required.
• Operator certification and training is required.
• Extensive mandatory testing for micro-organisms,
turbidity, residual chlorine, volatile organics, metals,
pesticides and nitrates, among other elements.
• There is no statutory provision for watershed or
wellfield protection.
• Mandatory testing does not cover all parameters in
the Canadian Guidelines.
Comment: Middle province with middling to poor
water protection.
• Mandatory testing for chlorine residual and
mandatory testing for bacteriological quality after
Comment: Bottom of the class.
• Disinfection (chlorine) is required.
• Use of certified labs is required.
• No watershed or wellfield protection.
• No binding standards for testing or treatment.
• Chlorination and other disinfection are rare.
• There is no operator certification or use of certified
• There are no binding requirements for notifying the
public of water quality problems.
• All testing is discretionary except for chlorine
residual testing and bacteriological testing after
construction or repair of water systems.
• Operator training/certification is not required.
• Reporting requirements need to be strengthened
(although there is a requirement that consumers are
to be notified if there have been three contaminant
violations in 30 days).
Comment: With Alberta and Ontario, top of
a lacklustre class.
Comment: Frontier mentality poses threats.
• Water quality must meet the Canadian Guidelines.
• There is mandatory testing for 46 contaminant
standards. Proposed legislation will raise it to 77
standards and implement mandatory controls for
turbidity, trihalomethanes and E. coli.
• No watershed or wellfield protection.
• Proposed legislation will strengthen reporting
• Chemical and radiological sampling is discretionary.
• Proposed legislation will make water quality
guidelines applicable to domestic wells.
• Reporting requirements need to be strengthened.
• Proposed legislation will raise microbiological
sampling frequency to eight samples per month, up
from two samples per year.
• Operator training and certification not required
(though proposed).
• Right-to-know reports are not required.
• Mandatory testing for coliform, chlorine residuals
and some physical parameters.
• No operator training and certification.
• No treatment requirements.
VI Conclusion
fter surveying jurisdictions across Canada, it is clear
that there is tremendous variation in how different
provinces and territories approach the important task
of ensuring that public water supplies are safe for
human consumption.
A patchwork approach to drinking water poses serious
public health risks and it explains why other countries
— most notably the United States — have taken serious
steps to develop enforceable guidelines that states and
districts must comply with to receive federal funding.
As things stand, the safety of drinking water
supplies is a serious question in many parts of
Canada. Not only are many provinces and territories
found lacking when it comes to how frequently they
require water to be tested, but the contaminants to be
tested for are often narrowly defined and exclude
potentially dangerous and, in some cases,
carcinogenic substances. Questions also abound
about who does the testing, where the test results are
sent to and when, and whether or not they are made
publicly available.
regard. And yet most people familiar with the provision of
clean drinking water say protecting water sources is as
important if not more important than how the water is
ultimately treated.
Looking at the patchwork of Canadian regulations, the
question is not why the Walkerton debacle occurred, but
why more disasters of a similar magnitude have not
occurred. The inescapable conclusion from this first
national drinking water report is that a number of
provinces and territories are well behind pre-Walkerton
Ontario. Unless things change, it is only a matter of
time before circumstances combine to create another
serious outbreak of waterborne disease.
Canadians deserve to know that wherever they are in their
home country, the same enforceable rules apply when it
comes to the water they drink. That implies a strong role
for a federal government that sets minimum standards.
And it requires a commitment by all levels of government
to make the necessary investments in water treatment and
water delivery infrastructure.
Water is a precious resource. Let's treat it that way.
Looking at the patchwork of Canadian regulations,
the question is not why the Walkerton debacle occurred,
but why more disasters have not occurred.
In the aftermath of the Walkerton tragedy, Ontario made
strides toward addressing some of these issues.
Nevertheless, it has yet to act on what is arguably the most
serious deficiency in its approach to protecting public
water supplies. It has not provided the legislated means to
protect watersheds and groundwater from potentially
damaging human activities. Ontario is not alone in this
Endnotes For Chapter 4
To assess how jurisdictions performed in protecting
water sources as well as treating and testing drinking
water, Sierra Legal contacted relevant ministries in each
province or territory. Initially this involved telephone
interviews with government officials in the health or
environment ministries. A thorough review of relevant
documents, including legislation and regulations
followed. Provincial and territorial summaries were
subsequently prepared and sent back to each jurisdiction
for comment. Four — British Columbia, Saskatchewan,
Ontario and Quebec — chose not to respond.
Section 1: Protection of Drinking Water Sources
Alberta: None. British Columbia: No general
provision for protected watersheds or wellfields.
“Reserves” under the Land Act and “community
watershed” status under the Forest Practices Code may be
used to create some protections. Manitoba: Public
Health Act (“PHA”) – Protection of Water Sources
Regulation (“PWSR”); Environment Act – Sensitive Areas
Regulation. Newfoundland: Environment Act (“EA”), s.
10. New Brunswick: Clean Water Act (“CWA”), s. 14.
Northwest Territories: Public Health Act (“PHA”) –
Public Water Supplies Regulation (“PWSR”), s. 8. Nova
Scotia: Environment Act (“EA”), s. 106. Nunavut: PHA
– PWSR, s. 8 (NWT). Ontario: None. Prince Edward
Island: None. Quebec: Reglement sur l’eau potable
(“RSLP”), Distances à respecter d’une potable par rapport
à certains usages ou activités. Saskatchewan: None.
Yukon: None.
Section 2: Water Quality Testing
Alberta: Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act
(“EPEA”) – Potable Water Regulation (“PWR”), s. 19.
British Columbia: Health Act (“HA”) - Safe Drinking
Water Regulation (“SDWR”), s. 5. Manitoba: PHA –
PWSR, s. 10. Newfoundland: none. New Brunswick:
CWA – Potable Water Regulation (“PWR”), s. 10. NW
Territories: PHA – PWSR, s. 9. Nova Scotia: EA —
Water and Wastewater Facility Regulations (“WWFR”), s.
16, and the Guidelines for Monitoring Public Drinking
Water Supplies. Nunavut: PHA – PWSR, s. 9. (N.W.T.).
Ontario: pre-revision: Ontario Water Quality Objectives
(non-binding). Ontario: post-revision: Ontario Water
Resources Act (“OWRA”) – Drinking Water Protection
Regulation (“DWPR”), s. 7. Prince Edward Island:
none. Quebec: RSLP. Saskatchewan: Environmental
Management and Protection Act (“EMPA”) – Water
Pollution Control and Waterworks Regulations
(WPCWR”), s. 25. Yukon: Public Health and Safety Act
(“PHSA”); Yukon Waters Act (“YWA”); Correspondence of
Yukon Environmental Health Services, Sept. 11, 2000
(“Correspondence”). United States: Safe Drinking Water
Act – National Primary Drinking Water Regulations,
passim. European Union: (effective 2003) Council directive
98/83/EC of November 3, 1998 on the quality of water
intended for human consumption, Article 7.
Use of Accredited Laboratories:
Certification of Operators:
Alberta: EPEA — PWR, s. 19; Correspondence of Kara
Chinniah, Municipal Programs Development Branch –
Government of Alberta, Sept. 10, 2000
(“Correspondence”). British Columbia: HA — SDWR,
ss. 1 (definitions) and 5. Manitoba: Correspondence of
Morley Smith, Environment Officer, Manitoba
Conservation, Sept. 8, 2000 (“Correspondence”).
Newfoundland: Not required. New Brunswick: CWR
– PWR, s. 9. NW Territories: Not required. Nova
Scotia: Not required. Nunavut: Not required.
Ontario: Not currently required. Required effective
Feb. 28, 2001, OWRA – DWPR, ss. 2 and 7. Prince
Edward Island: Not required. Quebec: RSLP, Controle
Analytique, s. 1. Saskatchewan: Not required.
Yukon: Correspondence.
Alberta: EPEA – PWR, s. 16. British Columbia: Not
required. Manitoba: Not required. Newfoundland: Not
required. New Brunswick: Not required. NW Territories:
Not required. Nova Scotia: EA – WWFR, ss. 6 and 7.
Nunavut: Not required. Ontario: pre-revision: OWRA,
Water Works and Sewage Works Regulation (“WWSWR”),
ss. 5 - 14. Ontario: post-revision: OWRA –WWSWR, ss. 5
- 14. PEI: Not required. Quebec: Communique, Cabinet
du ministre de l’Environment et ministre responsible de la
région de Québec – QUÉBEC RENFORCE
L’EAU POTABLE, June 19, 2000. Saskatchewan: Not
required. Yukon: Not required.
Section 3: Water Treatment
Alberta: EPEA – PWR, s. 11; Correspondence. British
Columbia: HA – SWDR, s. 6. Manitoba: HA – WSR,
s. 10. Newfoundland: Not required. New Brunswick:
Correspondence with Neil Thomas, Public Health
Management Unit, Sept. 7, 2000 (“Correspondence”).
NW Territories: PHA – PWSR, ss. 15 and 16. Nova
Scotia: Correspondence of Steve Warburton, Nova
Scotia Environment, Sept. 11, 2000 (“Correspondence”).
Nunavut: PHA – PWSR, ss. 15 and 16. (N.W.T.).
Ontario: pre-revision: Not required. Ontario: postrevision: OWRA – DWPR, ss. 5 and 6. PEI: none.
Quebec:. Correspondence of Jean Maurice Latulippe,
Quebec Ministry of the Environment, November 14,
2000 (“Correspondence”).
Saskatchewan: EMPA – WPCWR, s. 23. Yukon: Not
Section 5: Reporting Requirements:
Alberta: EPEA – PWR, ss. 13 and 19. British
Columbia: HA – SDWR, ss. 3 and 5. Manitoba:
Correspondence. Newfoundland: No binding reporting
requirements. New Brunswick: CWA – PWR, ss. 5 10. NW Territories: PHA – PWSR, ss. 9, 11 – 13. Nova
Scotia: EA – WWFR, ss. 16 and 17. Nunavut: PHA –
PWSR, ss. 9, 11 – 13. Ontario: pre-revision: No binding
reporting requirements.
Ontario: post-revision: OWRA – DWPR, ss. 7, 8, 10 –
12. PEI: No binding reporting requirements. Quebec:
Correspondence. Saskatchewan: EMPA – WPCWR, ss.
24 and 25. Yukon: Correspondence.
Section 4: Construction and Operation of Water
Delivery Systems:
Alberta: EPER – PWR, ss. 4 and 8. British Columbia:
HA – SWDR, ss. 2 and 4. Manitoba: HA – Water
Works, Sewerage and Sewage Disposal Regulation
(“WWSSDR”) – s. 2. Newfoundland: EA, s. 6. New
Brunswick: Clean Environment Act – Water Quality
Regulation, s. 3. NW Territories: PHA – PWSR, ss. 3, 14
- 15, and 18 - 20. Nova Scotia: EA – WWFR, ss. 4 and
5. Nunavut: PHA – PWSR, ss. 3, 14 – 15, and 18 - 20
(N.W.T.). Ontario: pre-revision: OWRA, s. 52.
Ontario: post-revision: OWRA, s. 52OWRA – DWPR, ss.
4 and 6. PEI: Not regulated. Quebec: Correspondence.
Saskatchewan: EMPA — WPCWR, ss. 19 – 22. Yukon:
Not regulated.
Auditor General of British Columbia, 1999. Protecting
Drinking-Water Sources, 1998/1999: Report 5.
Cantor, Kenneth P. et al., 1999. Drinking Water Source
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British Columbia Office
Ontario Office
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Toronto, Ont. M5T 3A3
Tel: 416.368.7533
Fax: 416.363.2746
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