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Water crisis is national, experts say

Special report: Fatal weaknesses in Canada's drinking-water system spur calls for urgent federal action MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT

Saturday, May 5, 2001

Canada needs to undertake a national review of all aspects of its water resources in response to the country's second major water-safety crisis in less than a year, say many politicians, municipal leaders and environmentalists.

The calls are being made after a cryptosporidium outbreak this week in North Battleford, Sask., was linked to three deaths, bringing to 10 the number of Canadians who may have died in the past year because they made what is turning out be a fatal mistake in Canada -- drinking their tap water.

But the deaths, highly visible and dramatic, are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Canada's water woes, according to many experts. Everything from the possibility that dangerous microbes are entering water supplies to the crumbling state of municipal water works requires a thorough examination.

"There is a dramatic need for a new federal water policy," said Paul Muldoon, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund and one of the country's top water experts. "We need a national review of water policy, both on its quantity and quality, including the issue of money and how to rebuild the national water infrastructure."

The call is being echoed by others, who are united in a concern that Canada, which possesses nearly 10 per cent of the world's renewable freshwater, is squandering this valuable resource.

Liberal Senator Jerry Grafstein, who has introduced a bill to have federal regulation of drinking water, much like current oversight of drug safety, says people are losing confidence in the ability of provinces and municipalities to manage this resource.

"We won't really know the real scope of the problem, which I believe is greater than 700 communities," Mr. Grafstein said in an interview in his Toronto law office yesterday. "The problem is, nobody knows."

In the Commons, New Democrat MP Lorne Nystrom demanded the Liberal government introduce a new law that would create national water standards, but he was given few answers. Currently, the country has voluntary, and non-binding, federal water-safety guidelines.

Ottawa introduced a bill on water standards in 1997, but it was never passed.

Transport Minister David Collenette, sitting in for an absent David Anderson, the Environment Minister, said the issue was a priority, but dodged the question about national standards.

"The government believes that the improvement of our drinking-water supply and sewage treatment is an utmost priority," he said.

But the pressure for some kind of national action is growing.

The Sierra Legal Defence Fund released a study in January that said problems such as the one in Saskatchewan were inevitable, given the country's weak water regulations.

Randy Christensen, a lawyer who co-wrote the study, is pressing for a formal investigation of the country's water resources.

"There is a need to take a more holistic look at the way we manage water in Canada to ensure that it is safe for people to drink and that there is enough available to meet environmental needs," Mr. Christensen said.

An array of dramatic problems in recent years has made water a big political issue in almost all areas of the country. Last year, a water-poisoning outbreak similar to the one in Saskatchewan killed seven people and made thousands seriously ill in Walkerton, Ont., in one of the world's worst E. coli outbreaks. The epidemic has made the farming town a national symbol of environmental contamination and damaged the image of Premier Mike Harris.

In Newfoundland, many drinking-water supplies are contaminated with cancer-causing trihalomethanes, while the province's Premier, Roger Grimes, is looking favourably on a controversial water-exporting scheme from Gisborne Lake.

The state of water supplies on many native reserves is a national disgrace, including one in northern Quebec where pets had to be given bottled water because area sources were so contaminated.

Boil-water advisories -- a sign of water contamination -- are common across the country.

In Ontario, a dangerous industrial solvent, trichloroethylene, has been detected in many municipal systems at levels that would cause regulators in the United States to shut the water systems down. But tens of thousands of residents in major communities, such as Cambridge, are allowed to use the contaminant-laced water under the lax provincial standards. The solvent has also been found in Quebec.

The amount of water available in Canada is also a concern. Some experts worry that global warming may be shrinking the stock of water in the Great Lakes, the mightiest freshwater ecosystem in the world, while some Canadians in Alberta and Ontario have recently been found trying to flog their spring water for profit over the Internet.

In Alberta, the government is so worried about scarce water supplies that it is considering allowing residents who hold water licences to buy and sell these extraction rights, permitting the kind of water trading that is common in parched areas of the United States.

In British Columbia, the province is involved in a huge lawsuit over its effort to prevent a company from making bulk water exports.

Environmentalists are fearful that Ontario's recent decision to grant Swiss-based mining company OMYA Corp. the right to take about 1.6 billion litres a year from the Tay River near Perth, and mix it with the minerals it processes, could lead to potential trade claims on the province's water.

Municipal water systems across the country are also in trouble. Many municipalities currently collect only enough from their customers to pay the operating costs of their system. Little or nothing is being set aside to fund the replacement of this infrastructure when it wears out, to say nothing of the improvements that will be required to bring treatment plants up to the standards needed to handle such new threats as cryptosporidium.

Recently, the head of Toronto's water works predicted charges to homeowners in many parts of the province would need to double or even triple -- to perhaps as much as $1,000 annually per home -- to provide the funds needed to maintain safe water and sewage systems.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says that $16.5-billion will be needed over the next decade to keep national water works functioning. It is currently not clear where all of this money will come from, as the federal government, and large provinces such as Ontario, have stopped earmarking funds for water-treatment systems.

Those who have studied Canada's water situation say it is such a mess that nothing short of a national water policy is needed to fix it because there is such a hodgepodge of federal, provincial and municipal responsibilities that no one is really in charge.

"It's a very sad affair that we can't better co-ordinate water, even in our own province there isn't anyone responsible for water, I mean you've got about seven different ministries on various aspects of water," complained James MacLaren, who was a member of the last federal inquiry into water in 1985.

-- Martin Thompson (, May 05, 2001


Then throw in oil company water wastage, for another related issue. A global tv report a couple of nights ago said that in Alberta the oil companies waste something like 45 billion litres of water while drilling as compared to about 2.5 billion litres for total consumer usage. I hunted for an online article to post here but couldn't find it.

-- Rachel Gibson (, May 05, 2001.

More calls, echoes, and we're fearful of. When is the kickoff meeting.

-- David Williams (, May 06, 2001.

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