Drinking Water Source Protection in Ontario

Being human, we tend to take for granted what we have plenty of, like water in Ontario – in the Great Lakes, in rivers and streams, and underground aquifers: drill or dig a well and you got water, no problem; put a hose or intake pipe into the lake and get lots of water, no problem. Build a pipeline here, another one there. Why worry? Be happy. 

Here in Ontario we used to have more good, fresh water than almost any place on earth. But now, finally, we know it’s not that simple anymore. We know we can’t take water for granted. We learned that lesson the hard way. We should have realized something might be wrong 15 years ago when a survey of hundreds of wells across rural Ontario found many were polluted. That was a red flag that should have prompted more detailed studies, leading to what’s finally happening now, the development of a province-wide strategy for the source protection of drinking water quality and quantity in Ontario’s numerous watersheds.

Through the 1990s there was growing awareness elsewhere that the world was facing a global drinking water crisis. In 1994, The Sun Times published an award-winning series that predicted drinking water would become the 21st Century’s most precious resource.

But in the late 1990s, Ontario was still knee-deep in the neo-conservative fantasyland of smaller government, budget cuts and lower taxes when Ontario’s water wake-up call, the Walkerton water tragedy, happened in May, 2000. Polluted drinking water killed seven people, sickened 2,300 and focussed the attention of the world on water problems in, of all places, Canada. Suddenly, drinking water quality and source protection in particular was at the top of Ontario’s public agenda, where it belongs. Nothing is more important than water. Life emerged from it, life depends on it. You and I, dear reader, are mostly water.

Measures to protect drinking water at the source were front and centre in Justice Dennis O’Connor’s recommendations in his Part Two report, A strategy for Safe Drinking Water (May 2002), following the Walkerton Inquiry. His first recommendation for a “multi-barrier” approach said “Drinking water sources should be protected by developing watershed-based source protection plans for all watersheds in Ontario.”

It’s been years since that report was published. Some work has begun. But the $13 million Ontario’s Liberal government (in 2005) has so far committed to source protection plan development is the proverbial drop in the bucket, compared to what the program will eventually cost, first to put in place, and then keep running.

Who will pay? You will, of course; you the taxpayer, you the homeowner, you the farmer, you the business operator, especially if your business uses or takes a lot of water. Anyone who pollutes the water source will pay big time. And that’s as it should be. But the cash-strapped government of Premier Dalton McGuinty, already burned once for breaking an election promise not to raise taxes, is no doubt facing a huge challenge to find its share of the money.

The Implementation Committee helping the government draft its long-awaited Drinking Water Source Protection Act has recommended the province cover the cost of plan development. “In public consultations, funding emerged as the most significant obstacle to source protection implementation,” the committee said in a report presented to Environment Minister Leona Dombrowski.

It notes Justice O’Connor recommended three key sources in a “combined” funding arrangement: user fees, provincial and/or municipal general revenues, and pollution charges. “The committee agreed that parties who are responsible for an activity which represents a risk to a source of drinking water should be responsible for funding its management . . . The (committee) agreed that a pollution charge in Ontario would be a valuable tool to fund source protection.” And, of special interest to many homeowners in rural Grey-Bruce area, the Implementation Committee considered “financial incentives for private property owners not on municipal systems.” It “recognized that private property owners (on private water and septic services) may stand to benefit from source protection activities, but could also pose a contamination risk to source water. The committee believes that incentive programs should be developed to encourage and assist private property owners with covering the costs of specific activities beneficial to source protection.” That’s bureaucratic double talk for help you hook up to municipals services, or replace your faulty septic system.

Then comes this potentially controversial recommendation, if it’s included in the final version of the act when it’s presented to the Provincial Legislature this year, possibly as early as June: “Furthermore, municipalities should be given the authority to levy source protection charges on properties not connected to municipal systems.” That would include a lot of properties in Grey-Bruce, including hundreds created in the late 1980s when Grey County council went on a rural, estate-lot severance approval spree, until the province intervened and forced the county to follow good planning practices.

You can bet there’s serious head-scratching going on behind government doors at Queen’s Park about how source protection planning will be paid for. That may be a big part of the reason why the legislation is taking so long. A draft version was made public June 23, 2004 and put on the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry for public comment.

John Steele, spokesperson for the Ontario Environment Ministry, said in an interview it’s hard to say how much drinking water source protection will cost and where the money will come from. But pollution charges and water-taking fees will play a role. Meanwhile, the government still has $400 million in its 2004 budget for drinking water expenditures, including $32.4 million earmarked for source protection, Steele said.

The Implementation Committee report offers the government some idea how expensive plan development could be, as high as $1,500 per square kilometre of watershed, “or $6.5 to $10 million for an average watershed region.”

Steele said it depends how one defines “watershed region” when I asked if, on that basis, the cost of plan development alone could add up to somewhere around $300 million, just for the watersheds that Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities look after.

The local Saugeen Valley and Grey Sauble conservation authorities, along with the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula, are jointly taking the first, $700,000 step in an assessment phase that will eventually lead to a plan for the Grey-Bruce area. Other conservation authorities are using portions of the initial provincial funding to do similar background work. But even if they also get together to form larger “watershed regions” for the purpose, we’re obviously talking many millions of dollars.

And that’s not counting annual operating for implementing, updating and enforcing the plans in each region. The implementation of source protection planning already done in the Niagara region is expected to cost $12.4 million annually.

Hopefully, the government will come up with a fair and workable funding plan. It should certainly involve making polluters pay. And there’s no question everyone in Ontario is going to end up sharing the expense, and paying for the mistakes of the past.

But source protection is an idea whose time is overdue. It has to happen. Water is just too important. In the long-term, the better stewards of the environment we all become, the less it will cost.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2005.

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