The price of water

Posted by on June 13, 2012 at 11:26 pm.

Water is free, keeping it clean costs

When a small western Ontario town started getting sick, it caught the attention of the local media.When the source of the illness turned out to be the water, it caught the whole province’s attention. When, after four Walkerton residents, including a two-year-old girl had died and hundreds had been sickened, we learned that the disaster could have been averted, it shook the nation.

We have to trust our water supply. There’s no getting around the fact that we need water to live. So Ontario came up with a solution to prevent the tragedy at Walkerton from being repeated. That solution came in the form of the Clean Water Act.

The Act divided the province into watershed systems, run by regional committees made up of local governments, conservation authorities and private citizens. Each area was responsible for mapping the area around municipal water sources, identifying contamination hazards within a zone surrounding the water sources, and eliminating or managing those hazards.

Here in the County, the source water project is run by Keith Taylor of Quinte Conservation. This watershed system, which runs almost as far north as Bancroft, includes the system feeding the Moira River, the Bay of Quinte and Prince Edward County.

In Walkerton’s case, the contamination was a farm just outside the municipal boundaries. The farmer’s cows were grazing dangerously close to the town’s water source, but the farmer didn’t know the well existed—it was covered with brush—and the town officials failed to consider contamination issues from outside the municipality. They forgot that, regardless of borders and boundaries, water travels.

In the County the biggest hazard comes not from cows, but from human beings. The Quinte Region Source Protection Committee has presented a plan that would require anyone living within the source water zones to have their septic tanks inspected and, if necessary, upgraded to meet safety guidelines.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of houses around here without municipal sewage, so eliminating septic systems is not an option,” said Taylor. “But inspecting and upgrading those septic systems is. There are some people who have discovered they don’t have a septic system at all, they just have a pipeline into the ground or a 45-gallon drum, things just do not work properly.”

Once the plan is approved, it will be incorporated into municipal planning documents and enforced annually. If any residents choose not to co-operate, the municipality or the conservation authority can take action.

“The Clean Water Act has got teeth,” says Taylor. “The inspections to the septic system is a change to the building code, so the building inspectors have the right to inspect. So someone can try and do that, but they’re not going to be successful. I’ve had some calls from people who aren’t happy about this, but generally people realize that something like Walkerton can reduce the values of everyone’s home and cause huge health risks – seven people died – it’s absolutely not acceptable to not respect sources of drinking water.”

There are subsidies for the cost of inspecting and repairing a septic system. The water stewardship program, run by the province, can provide rebates of up to 80 per cent of the cost of the job. But you have to apply for the grant, and you have to prove you need it.

“It’s really a case of fiscal ability,” said Commissioner of Public Works and a member of the Source Protection Committee Robert McAuley. “If you have the ability, they won’t offer you funding, but if you don’t have the ability, you might get some money.”

It would be up to each municipality to determine how to handle costs. The provincial government feels users of municipal water should be responsible for their own costs, but it is possible for a municipality to handle the cost of inspectors, or work something out with its residents.

“The municipality [covers the cost]” said Mcauley. “It’s all part of our global waterworks systems. And they all operate as one entity, so if you want, all six are paying for the cost. Council has said publicly that they want to know if government will assist with funding but I don’t think they’ll take over the costs. The government has been very clear about user cost.”

So is it worth the cost? McAuley admits that the plan runs the risk of making water expensive. But that expensive water would be safer and require less chemicals to treat.

“Expensive water is always an issue for people,” said McAuley. “But if it’s something we have to do, and the water is a user pay system, then the users will have to pay for it.”

So why do we have to do it?

“To avoid another Walkerton. Source protection is one of the obvious solutions.”

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