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Drinking water quality in B.C. to become a bigger issue as groups debate solutions

Although water is a necessity for life on this planet, we haven’t been treating it with the respect it deserves.

Recent events, notably the fatal E. coli contamination of the water supply in Walkerton, Ontario that killed seven residents and effectively poisoned 2,300 others, have drawn attention to the status of water quality and water treatment in Canada.

Suddenly the country became aware that drinking water is a national problem, and sometimes a regional crisis. There are boil water advisories from coast to coast, in literally every province and territory.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, almost 90 communities are under boil water advisories for a variety of microbial and chemical agents. For about 27 of these communities, the advisories are year-round, and many have been in effect for years as the cash-strapped province can’t afford to dig new wells or build treatment plants for towns with only a few hundred residents.

In British Columbia, the problem is even more serious.

Last August, it was reported that 304 water systems in the province were under boil water advisories, up from 220 communities the previous year. About 65 per cent of these advisories were issued for community water systems that use untreated surface water. About 84 per cent of communities in the province still rely on surface water to some degree, although more and more are tapping into safer, and better protected underground sources.

Surface water can be contaminated by animal waste, human activities, resource industries, and by natural phenomena like blue-green algae blooms.

The number of boil water advisories has gone down to about 240 since August, according to the Ministry of Health Planning, but by any measure that’s 240 too many.

While B.C. hasn’t had an outbreak on the scale of Walkerton, since 1980 there have been 29 confirmed waterborne disease outbreaks in the province caused by micro-organisms like giardia, cryptosporidium and campylobacter.

Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall says there’s no way to gauge how many people are affected by water-related illnesses on a day-to-day basis, but he believes many British Columbians who feel they’re suffering from stomach flu and food poisoning could really be suffering from contaminated drinking water.

For years, British Columbia has had the highest rate of gastrointestinal illness or stomach illness in Canada – an unusual statistic for a province that is usually first in terms of health, nutrition and fitness.

Drinking water was also a major issue in the last provincial election, and one of the few issues that all parties could agree was a major and immediate concern.

In its first 90 days in office, the Liberal government established the Drinking Water Review Panel to look at the issue and make recommendations to protect the province’s drinking water. The public consultation process will end on Jan. 15 (call 1-877-882-1284 to voice your opinions), and a rough draft of their final report is expected in February.

If their recommendations are adopted, they will be ratified into Bill 20, the Drinking Water Protection Act.

In the meantime, the panel released a list of 19 recommendations on Dec. 14.

Most of these recommendations were organizational – improving communications and the administration of water quality monitoring and treatment by making it a primary focus.

The first recommendation is to commit the government to retaining and amending the Drinking Water Protection Act in accordance with the panel recommendations that the government accepts.

The second recommendation is to create a central Drinking Water Protection Agency "to integrate the skills, resources and authority of all provincial ministries with responsibility for drinking water protection." In other words, all government ministries and agencies have to work together to protect, monitor, and treat drinking water to provide the public with a universal standard.

The third recommendation is to "Strengthen Source Protection Measures" that would "give drinking water priority over other resource uses in sensitive water supply areas." The revised Water Protection Act would take precedence over all other government Acts and jurisdictions, such as the Forest Practices Code, the Range Act and the Waste Management Act.

This would also give the government jurisdiction to create standards, and limit or prohibit activities "that are known to have negative affects on surface and groundwater drinking water sources." It would place the onus on private companies to prove that their activities in relation to the drinking water supply are safe, rather than on the government to prove that these activities are harmful.

This recommendation would also give local governments more influence over the kinds of activities taking place in their watersheds, and would give water purveyors the ability to take action to reduce risks.

Furthermore, this would spell out the liability and penalties "for diminishment of drinking water quality or quantity."

The other 16 recommendations for amendments to the Drink Water Act include:

• Specify provincial responsibility for assessments

• Strengthen the role of the Drinking Water Officer

• Recognize limitations of small systems

• Provide support to small systems

• Enable tap water standards

• Redefine ‘potable water’

• Enable water treatment standards

• Clarify when a drinking water protection plan is required

• Change the authority to develop a Drinking Water Protection Plan

• Clarify the relationship of DWPP’s to other planning processes

• Encourage water use conservation

• Improve groundwater measures

• Streamline the Act

• Allow for use of the Environmental Appeal Board

• Ensure drinking water quality protection for First Nations

• Incorporate community ‘right-to-know’ principles

Dr. Kendall himself had 32 separate recommendations for protecting drinking water when he released the 2000 annual report on health on Nov. 19 as the Blueprint for Action on Drinking Water.

Together, the Drinking Water Review Panel and Dr. Kendall have given the province about 52 things to think about when they work to ratify the Drinking Water Protection Act in the coming months.

At the same time, a group of environmentalists and individuals is petitioning the government to protect drinking water sources through the legislation of watershed reserves – something that wouldn’t sit well with the resource industries or the Liberals, who are working to make the province more attractive to investors and the resource industries we still rely on.

The petition, launched by the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, blames human intervention for the contamination of drinking water – "Many of B.C.’s sources of drinking water have been damaged by industrial development such as logging, road-building, mining and grazing… Water needs to be preserved, not treated after it has been compromised."

They have a point.

Animal waste has always gotten into the water, but without the trees to maintain the integrity of slopes, and grazing animals and industrial farming adding to the mix, more waste is finding its way into our water than ever before.

Development in and around watersheds has also increased the flow and flooding of rivers and streams, which has washed away the plants and organisms that used to clean the water as part of their own biological processes.

"Watershed Reserves would protect the source of water and be in areas that have no logging, road-building, mining or grazing by specific legislative enactment prohibiting these uses in any forms. Watershed Reserves would reduce the provincial Allowable Annual Cut by approximately two per cent," according to the petition.

Among the groups that have signed this petition are the B.C. Tap Water Alliance, The Western Canada Wilderness Committee, the Sierra Club of B.C., the David Suzuki Foundation, the Health Action Network Society, the West Coast Environmental Law Association – even the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE). There are 59 groups all told, federal, regional and local.

The final decision on drinking water protection will likely include a balance between preservation and treatment, and will emphasize the importance of taking responsibility for our drinking water – something that’s been missing for a long, long time.