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A plan that could change how Torontos drinking water and wastewater systems are governed, moving them from the citys hands to an arms length agency, has the community up in arms.

The plan being studied by the city could transfer control of Torontos water systems to a public water utility corporation or another separate agency. Many fear the move could diminish accountability and community control and may well be a first step toward privatization of the water system.

Hiving off the water department may dampen citizen input and scrutiny, says Shelley Petrie. Well have decisions made by unelected officials, with less opportunity for the public to find out whats going on and participate in the debates, says Petrie, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. The alliance, along with CUPE and other community members, have formed a broad-based Water Watch coalition to challenge and counter the citys plans, ensuring the best possible public management of this vital service.

If you want to get in touch with the CEO of the utility corporation, just try, says Frank Morrissey, a water worker at the citys Ashbridges Bay sewage treatment plant. And if you complain to city council, there wont be much they can do. Decisions will be made by the utility board.

City councillor Pam McConnell is concerned Torontonians will be left with decisions made in the back rooms even if the door is supposedly open.

Morrissey, who coordinates preventative maintenance at Ashbridges Bay and is chair of CUPE 416s water and wastewater division, worries Torontos water systems are being primed for privatization. He says a utilitys corporate structure, is a stepping stone on the bridge to privatization. It sets the system up as ripe for the plucking.

Petrie says converting to a utility may make it easier for a future city council to sell off the water systems, especially when the city is under enormous pressure from the water corporations and the provincial government to privatize.

Shifting water out of the public spotlight could reduce pressure to have high-quality drinking water, says Petrie. Will Toronto lose its inclination to be a leader on environmental issues, and just revert to the bare minimum federal or provincial standards? She says right now city councillors are proud of Torontos great quality drinking water and respond to public pressure to maintain and improve water quality.

Wastewater, often less scrutinized than what comes out of the tap, has already come under the cost-cutting knife. Morrissey says corporate pressure has ratcheted down standards for sewage treatment at the Highland Creek plant. An American consulting firm, EMA, has deployed a cost-reduction scheme that cut staff and drastically reduced the quality of the plants discharge.

With the citys higher standard, any system failure meant the plants discharge would still meet the provinces requirements. Now, failure means contaminated water. The effluent used to be treated to a higher standard than the provincial minimum, and that meant security. But weve got no margin any more, says Morrissey.

Pitching the utility as a cost-cutting measure highlights the danger of the scheme, says McConnell. How will you cut costs? Reduce how much you pay the workers, reduce investment in infrastructure and reduce the amount of service or jeopardize the inspection of water. All of these jeopardize the safety of the water system.

Petrie worries moving to an arms length utility will isolate water and wastewater from broader community debates about public health and safety. She says the citys water department helped pass a strict new bylaw banning cosmetic use of pesticides. The water department showed lawn pesticides threatened to contaminate the sources of the citys drinking water, a move that told councillors there was broad support backed with serious reasons for the bylaw, says Petrie.

If its a utility, will they get as involved? Or will they just step aside and say its a public health issue. I worry it will create a divide. Well lose that integration of departments and services, she says.

Community members say the citys leaving little room for public input or comment, right from the initial study proposal, which was sprung on a committee agenda at the last minute, leaving little time to respond.

The whole process has been lousy, and has limited and avoided public participation, says Petrie. Water Watch is holding its own community hearings into the citys plan, and is making sure its message is heard at city meetings. Its a democracy issue, she says, adding citys holding open houses that have a one-way aim of providing information. The city has cancelled the only full-fledged public consultation to solicit community feedback. Instead, community members will have to make their voices heard by making presentations as a joint committee considers staff recommendations on the water question.

Petrie says freezing out the public will create bad policy. The more the public is involved in decisions about a program or service, the better that service becomes. And better decisions usually mean a cleaner environment.

The Water Watch consultations have involved hundreds of people, and Petrie says the main response is why didnt we know about this?, a reaction she says breeds suspicion and frustration, diverting energy and attention from the real issue at hand: supporting and improving Torontos water systems. She says many groups with deep connections to their community watersheds are eager to share their ideas. The citys next step is a final report, expected in summer 2002.