The task of protecting surface and groundwater is often difficult in the absence of legislation.
In the inaugural National Drinking Water Report Card we based our evaluation on the following criteria: Watershed and Wellfield Protection Water 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.
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.
Jurisdictions were evaluated both on the frequency of their testing and what they looked for in water samples.
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. Jurisdictions were evaluated on what they required by way of treatment.
Operator Training and Certification
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.
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.)
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.
- Alberta does not have clear, legislated standards for public reporting and public notification.
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.
British Columbia D
Comment: Rich province, poor regulations.
- Water purveyors are required to disinfect water supplies.
- 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.
- 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 …
- Manitoba has enacted some protections for
watersheds and wellfields.
- Disinfection, and testing for disinfection residuals, is mandatory.
- 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
New Brunswick C-
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
- New Brunswick requires the use of certified labs.
- Testing results must be reported to government.
- 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).
Comment: Should do more homework.
- Under provincial legislation, watersheds and
wellfields may be protected. Newfoundland has
created 250 such areas.
- Testing is done at the provincial lab.
- Newfoundland is posting the results of
trihalomethane testing on the Internet.
- All testing is discretionary.
- Treatment is discretionary.
Northwest Territories C
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.
- Provincial government reviews test results.
- No watershed/wellfield protection.
- No operator training or use of accredited labs.
- No mandatory provisions for public notification.
Nova Scotia B-
Comment: Has recently pulled up its socks.
- Protection for watersheds and wellfields is available (but not mandatory).
- Disinfection is required and disinfection residual
testing must be performed daily.
- Microbiological sampling frequency must meet
population-based Canadian Guidelines.
- 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.
- Operator certification is required.
- Test results must be reported to provincial officials, and the boil-water procedure has been codified.
- There is no lab certification policy (although one is being drafted); however, testing must be conducted at a lab acceptable to government.
- No mandatory testing for the majority of standards in the Canadian Guidelines.
Note: Nunavut uses N.W.T. regulation. See above.
Ontario: Pre-revision D
Ontario: Post-revision (effective 2002) B
Comment: After a hard lesson, showing improvement.
- Testing labs must be certified.
- Operator certification and training is required.
- Ontario water quality objectives are not binding or enforceable.
- Mandatory water quality testing is not required.
- There is no statutory provision for watershed or
- Testing labs must be certified.
- Results must be routinely reported to environment ministry and in cases of suspected contamination.
- Public notification of water quality problems is required.
- Right-to-know provisions guarantee public access to water-quality reports.
- Mandatory water treatment prescribed: groundwater must be chlorinated and surface water must be chlorinated and filtered.
- 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.
Prince Edward Island F
Comment: Bottom of the class.
- No binding standards for testing or treatment.
- Chlorination and other disinfection are rare.
- There is no operator certification or use of certified laboratories.
- There are no binding requirements for notifying the public of water quality problems.
Comment: With Alberta and Ontario, top of a lacklustre class.
- 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.
- Proposed legislation will strengthen reporting
- Proposed legislation will make water quality
guidelines applicable to domestic wells.
- Proposed legislation will raise microbiological
sampling frequency to eight samples per month, up
from two samples per year.
- Operator training and certification not required
- Right-to-know reports are not required.
Comment: Middle province with middling to poor
- Mandatory testing for chlorine residual and
mandatory testing for bacteriological quality after
- Disinfection (chlorine) is required.
- Use of certified labs is required.
- No watershed or wellfield protection.
- 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: Frontier mentality poses threats.
- Mandatory testing for coliform, chlorine residuals and some physical parameters.
- No watershed or wellfield protection.
- Chemical and radiological sampling is discretionary.
- No operator training and certification.
- Reporting requirements need to be strengthened.
- No treatment requirements.
Looking at the patchwork of Canadian regulations,
the question is not why the Walkerton debacle occurred, but why more disasters have not occurred.
After 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.
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 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.