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Safe Drinking Water For All: status update

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

In August of 2022, the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) prepared a report looking at the status of 121 recommendations made by the Walkerton Inquiry.

In 2000, 7 people died and over 2,300 people became ill after Walkerton's water supply was contaminated with E.coli bacteria from farm manure runoff. (Walkerton is a town of 5,000 people about an hour south of Owen Sound and 90 minutes north of Kitchener Ontario).

Read CELA's report: Safe Drinking Water For All

Chapter 1 summarizes the Walkerton tragedy.

Chapter 2 gives an overview of how drinking water protection is currently regulated in Ontario.

Chapter 3 evaluates the status of each of the 121 Inquiry recommendations.

Chapter 4 explores how the current drinking water protection framework under serves rural and Indigenous communities.

Here is how CELA evaluated the 121 recommendations:

After 20 years of government action, the report found:

  • Overall, the picture in Ontario is one of continued success in drinking water protection.

  • 65 of the 121 recommendations have been considered complete and continue to be effectively implemented. (53.7%)

  • 5 had no work done (marked incomplete). (4%)

  • 29 recommendations need improvement. (24%)

  • 3 recommendations are no longer applicable because they were rendered moot or their goal was addressed through a means different than that described in the recommendation. (2.4%)

  • 10 recommendations could not be confirmed due to lack of publicly accessible information. (8.2%)

  • 9 required further investigation before determining status. (7.4%)

These numbers are important and a bit more context will be shared about a few of these numbers below, however it is also important to highlight one of the report's key conclusions:

While about 80 percent of the provincial population receives their drinking water from municipal water systems, which are closely regulated, other parts of the population — mainly small and remote communities, Indigenous communities, and those who obtain their water from private wells — do not receive these protections. This bifurcated approach is inequitable, unacceptable, and endangers the health of excluded populations. (page 2)

For context, water governance is shared between Federal, Provincial, and Municipal governments. The Federal government is responsible for sea coasts, fisheries, navigation, and criminal law. According to the Canadian Constitution, the Federal government is also responsible for "Indians and lands reserved for Indians" -- which covers safe drinking water for Indigenous reserves. There are 207 Federally recognized First Nations reserves in Ontario with more than 630 across what today is called Canada.

Provincial governments have exclusive power to legislate over natural resources (including lakes, rivers, groundwater) and drinking water standards. For Ontario, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) exercise this power. Key legislation includes the:

  • Clean Water Act

  • Safe Drinking Water Act

  • Nutrient Management Act

  • Environmental Bill of Rights

  • Health Protection and Promotion Act

  • Environmental Protection Act

  • Conservation Authorities Act

  • Ontario Water Resources Act

As mentioned above, rural and Indigenous communities are at much higher risk for drinking water contamination compared to those living in larger municipal jurisdictions. Some of the main reasons include: agricultural manure regulation, information management, private well regulation, and discriminatory rules and capacities for Indigenous First Nations reserves.

Out of the 6 Walkerton Inquiry recommendations pertaining to agriculture, only 1 has been implemented in the past 20 years which is concerning since it was manure contamination from a nearby farm that fouled Walkerton's water in the first place. 4 recommendations are assessed as Needs Improvement and recommendation #15 is Incomplete which advises that:

"The Ministry of the Environment should work with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, agricultural groups, conservation authorities, municipalities, and other interested groups to create a provincial framework for developing individual farm water protection plans." (page 27)

The Nutrient Management Act is suppose to prevent water contamination from manure, but there are many gaps in the implementation.

"The former ECO (Environmental Commissioners Office) reported that only 6,513 farms out of 19,409 livestock operations in Ontario are required to prepare and follow a nutrient management strategy. Of those 6,513 farms, 1,303 large operations must also prepare and follow a nutrient management plan. The rules only capture about 34 percent of Ontario’s livestock operations, 6 percent of the farms that spread manure, and 44 percent of Ontario’s total manure by volume. Smaller farms, such as the farm that was the source of contamination in Walkerton, are not required to follow these NMA rules." (page 29)

SPCs (Source Protection Committees) rely on farmers to update them on complying with the rules with the MECP the sole authority for inspection and enforcement of nutrient plans, but rarely does so. From 2016-2017, the MECP conducted 174 nutrient management inspections (that's only 0.78% of all farms spreading manure) and found that only 38% of these farms were fully compliant with their (mostly) self-created and self-monitored strategies and plans.

Information mis-management was a key factor in Walkerton's water contamination. Coordination between permits and approvals between Ministries and local health units is critical for an integrated system of oversight in the public interest. However, all 4 of the Inquiry's recommendations for Information Management are still graded at "Unavailable" by CELA's reporting 20 years after the Walkterton Inquiry. The government's actions or inactions for this safeguard was not made public.

While making up 15% of the Ontario population (an estimated 2.25 million people) the Clean Water Act does not regulate drinking water from private wells. These residents are responsible for taking their own water samples, maintaining their well, and treating the water themselves. In a 2014 report by the Auditor General, 36% of water samples from private wells tested positive for bacteria including E. Coli. While people on wells can get their water tested for free, only E. Coli is checked -- no other potential contaminants are checked. For a sobering comparison, the City of Toronto reports on 148 water quality contaminants. See the full list here:

City of Toronto drinking water 2021
Download PDF • 237KB

Source water protection rules (protection for groundwater and water from lakes and rivers) provide some barriers for water contamination, but private wells users have little knowledge of influence over these rules. Page 73 of the report offers some options for expanding drinking water protections for private well users.

"Justice O’Connor [Walkerton Inquiry] noted that the water in Indigenous communities is some of the “poorest quality water in the province” and does not meet the standards that generally prevail throughout Ontario. Many Indigenous communities are plagued by long‐term “boil water” advisories, “do not consume” warnings, and other serious water problems. As of May 2022, there were 34 long‐ term drinking water advisories impacting 29 Indigenous communities in Ontario. The disparity in drinking water quality between Indigenous and non‐Indigenous communities is unacceptable." (page 75)

The Inquiry gave 6 recommendations for the Federal government's management of water on First Nations reserves. 20 years after the Inquiry's final report, 4 of these recommendations Needs Improvement and 2 are marked as Incomplete. It needs to be noted that in 2012, Canada adopted the 2010 United Nations General Assembly agreement that clean water and sanitation are human rights. 10 years later, this agreement is still not the law in Canada. It also needs to be noted that Walkerton's water issues were resolved within 6 months, while some First Nations go years, even decades, with contaminated water.

Drinking water quality for First Nations is complicated by Canada's colonial powers over Indigenous peoples. The crisis is also driven by asymmetry between various government standards and capacities, First Nations governments challenging Federal authority, and significant disparities in funding and standards when comparing drinking water infrastructure and standards for those living on or off reserves.

This 100 page report seems to have missed more exposure by media outlets. This post summarizes just a fraction of the many lessons that need to be learned to ensure safe drinking water for all. If you have access to larger audiences, please share this post. Or, create and share your own summary of findings. Where possible, advocate for continued investment, accountability, coordination between governments, and respect for human rights to clean water.

By Paul Baines

Please leave a comment.

Do you operate a farm or live near farms and if so, how are you helping to ensure clean drinking water and/or what questions and concerns remain after reading this post?

Do you manage your own well and what added protections would you like to see to keep your drinking water safe?

Do you live on an Indigenous reserve, what constructive changes have you seen these past 20 years for clean drinking water, and what challenges remain?

What processes and principles would you like to see adopted by governments to ensure everyone in Ontario and in Canada can trust their safe supply of drinking water?

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