From dead camels to E. coli

Everyone agrees that we cannot take water for granted anymore. But who should protect it and how?

By Tim Lougheed

Writer Marq de Villiers tells the story of a Saharan oasis with a dead camel floating in the middle of an artesian well. Visitors to the site take their water carefully from various places in the well, but no one removes the camel because no one knows who owns it and no one wants to claim it.

For de Villiers, this is the story of water in an increasing number of places around the world, including Canada. In some of the most desperate circumstances, dead camels would be the least of people's problems. But as in the story, responsibility for the problem is always deflected elsewhere. "This is what we're doing to the whole planet," he says. "It's our dead camel-nobody's doing anything about it."

Where does our water come from?

  • Across Canada, 12 percent of the water used in municipalities comes from groundwater; the rest is from lakes and rivers.
  • Some eight million Canadians (26 percent of the total population) rely on groundwater. Large areas of Canada are dependent on groundwater; these include New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, southwestern Ontario, and Prince Edward Island.
  • There are an estimated one to two million water wells in use in Canada and approximately 38,500 new ones are drilled each year.

In his 1999 book Water, which won the 1999 non-fiction Governor-General's Award, de Villiers insists this liquid is unlike anything else on earth. Vital to life, it is as limited and non-renewable as natural resources come. We must manage and protect it carefully; we abuse it at our ultimate peril.

He should know. Growing up on a farm in Namibia, one of the driest parts of the world, he watched his grandfather slaughter their livestock after four years of drought left them too water-poor to sustain the animals. Wells in the region were depleting aquifers thousands of feet underground, reservoirs that have not been replenished for millennia. To call water a key determinant of the local quality of life would have been a ridiculous understatement.

We should know, too, but the realities of water have come relatively late to Canadians. According to United Nations statistics, this country ranks third among nations in its annual freshwater supplies, though we are not even among the world's 25 most populous. And while population growth and industrial expansion have reduced our per capita availability of water to much less than half of what it was in 1950, Canada's supplies still dwarf those of almost any other developed country.

Nevertheless, a tainted supply can be worse than no supply at all, as Canadians rudely discovered last year in the unassuming southern Ontario town of Walkerton-de Villiers' book appeared only months before E. coli bacteria in the local water supply caused the deaths of several residents. The tragedy has focused unprecedented attention on the administrative mechanisms that exist to ensure that the water a municipality provides to homes, schools and workplaces is safe for any use.

Water is gold

  • The in-ground assets of Canadian municipal water supply and wastewater systems are worth more than $100 billion.
  • In one month, the average household uses about 30,000 litres of water and pays $27.65 per month for it. Canadians pay on average about three-quarters of American and one-quarter of European water prices-and use about twice as much as Europeans.
  • Canadian municipal water prices are generally too low to cover all operational, repair, upgrading, and expansion costs. Over the next 10 years, it is estimated it will cost some $23 billion to repair and upgrade municipal water and sewage systems. To bridge the gap between costs and revenue from water, prices are expected to increase in the future.
  • One litre of tap water costs about one-tenth of a cent; the same amount of bottled water costs $1.50; milk, $1.10; and soft drinks, $0.85.

In a special report to the Ontario government last summer, Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller characterized the province's legal and policy framework on water as "fragmented and uncoordinated." Responsibility for water is divvied up between the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), the Ministry of the Environment (MOE), and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MAH).

"The ministries do not have a publicly recognizable strategy that spells out how priorities are to be set and how ministries can coordinate their efforts and work with all stakeholders to address the conflicting goals in different laws and policies," concluded Miller.

Water is life

  • About 83 percent of our blood is water.
  • Each day, we must replenish 2.4 litres of water to our bodies, through drinking and the foods we eat.
  • More than one billion people lack adequate access to clean drinking water and nearly two billion lack safe sanitation.
  • More than three million people still die every year from avoidable water-related disease; in developing countries, 80 percent of illnesses are water-related.
  • Twenty-six countries have more people than their water supplies can adequately support.

In the wake of a calamity of this magnitude, the finger pointing could continue indefinitely. From the outset, the crisis was blamed on everything from the incompetence of individual equipment operators, to inadequate regulations for agricultural wastes, to cuts in environmental spending by the provincial government. Miller's report aimed to transcend any specific chain of events and focused on structural inadequacies that need to be addressed. For example, under the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) of the province's Planning Act, the Municipal Affairs and Housing Ministry has established policies for land use that could affect groundwater.

"The PPS expresses the need for municipalities to protect water quality and quantity, but the policy is not legally binding and must only be considered by municipal planners and developers," stated Miller. "Moreover, MOE, not MAH, is responsible for ensuring that this aspect of PPS is adequately considered."

Miller notes that this regulatory disconnection separates bureaucratic controls from real activities and their effects on the water supply. Allow diversion for irrigation, and you can subsequently lose more than two-thirds of the water to evaporation or runoff. Pave over the ground for a new subdivision or commercial complex, and you permanently reduce the ability of the land to absorb rainwater and recharge aquifers. Diminish the flow or amount of water in the ground, and you run a higher risk of concentrating contaminants that can enter from household septic tanks, landfills, or waste generated by local farms and industries.

Slowing the flow

  • Toilets are the single greatest water users; you can reduce usage by 40 to 50 percent by installing low-flush toilets.
  • Instead of running the water continuously, turning the tap off while you are actually brushing your teeth and then using the tap for rinsing saves about 80 percent of the water normally used.
  • A five-minute shower with a low-flow head uses 35 litres of water, compared with 100 litres with a conventional shower head.
  • Nearly two-fifths of Canadian municipalities still charge flat rates for water instead of metering usage, providing no incentive for conservation. In 1994, Canadian households paying for water by volume used 263 litres per person per day, 39 percent less than households paying a flat rate, which used 430 litres per person per day. Using water more efficiently lowers water costs and extends the life of existing municipal water and sewage treatment facilities.
  • Boston reduced total annual water demand by 16 percent over five years through public education, the installation of water-efficient fixtures in homes, industrial water audits, and system-wide leak repair; these measures postponed the need to develop expensive new water sources.

Other challenges are on the horizon. Significant numbers of city dwellers are constructing sizeable new homes or cottages in underpopulated rural regions. Many of these newcomers demand the same ready access to clean water that they enjoy in urban areas, but if that demand rises too dramatically or too quickly the local infrastructure could be overwhelmed. Existing agricultural use may already be taxing a region's water supply, so that accommodating new growth could undermine not just the local quality of life, but its economic foundation as well.

Natural forces could also drastically alter the accessibility of groundwater. The world may well face global warming, which promises to extend the growing season in many parts of Canada. But if the world's average annual temperature is rising, as a large part of the scientific community maintains, this "greenhouse effect" also promises to lower lake and river levels, as well as reduce the recharge rate of aquifers.

Down the drain

  • Canadians are among the biggest water users in the world. Where does it all go? The average Canadian uses 343 litres of water each day for household and gardening purposes.
  • About 65 percent of indoor home water use is in our bathrooms:
  • -- Toilet flush: 15 to 19 litres
    -- Ten minute shower: 100 litres
    -- Bath: 60 litres
    -- Washing machine: 225 litres

  • Many homes lose more water from leaky taps than they need for cooking and drinking and even the smallest drip can waste 75 litres of water a day. Indeed, one leak can waste several thousand litres of water per year.
  • On average, 14 percent of municipal piped water is lost in pipeline leaks-up to 30 percent in some communities.
  • During the summer, about half of all treated water ends up sprayed on lawns. A lawn sprinkler spraying 19 litres per minute uses 50 percent more water in just one hour than 10 toilet flushes, two five-minute showers, two dishwasher loads and a full load of laundry combined.

Global warming has been considered sufficiently threatening to warrant a three-year, $600,000 study in eastern Ontario. Funded through Community University Research Alliances (CURA), a pilot program established by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 1999, the study aims to help communities develop strategies for dealing with the political, social, and economic implications of finding water in a warmer world. Led by University of Ottawa economics Professor Philippe Crabbé, the project draws together experts in biology, civil and chemical engineering, earth sciences, epidemiology, geography, law, medicine, nursing, and political science, as well as representatives from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences, the City of Cornwall, the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, and the United Counties of Prescott-Russell.

"This research will be extremely integrative," says Crabbé, noting that the subject matter addresses the various types of "capital" that contribute to a community's well-being. Such capital can include the extent of watershed defining a region's topography or the educational and health care systems enabling people to adapt to major changes in lifestyle.

"If we manage to have municipal councils take climate change seriously as a dimension of their decision-making-emergency measures, infrastructure and so on-that will be the purpose of the project," he says.

The project builds on the work of the Eastern Ontario Water Resources Management Study, a combination of two regional initiatives run by the United Counties of Prescott-Russell, and the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry. Funded primarily by Ontario's Ministry of the Environment, the study is also supported by conservation authorities for two of the region's key watersheds, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The study has been looking at the most cost-effective alternatives for preserving the quantity and quality of those supplies in the face of growing demand. Due to report in 2001, this two-year study has been reviewing the options that are open to municipal governments in the region.

The study is also assembling a comprehensive database of regional water resources, with the ultimate goal of anticipating and preventing problems like those at Walkerton.

Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry also make up one of six case studies in an infrastructure risk project mounted by FCM's Partners for Climate Protection (PCP) program. The impact of climate change on groundwater is highlighted in these two sets of eastern Ontario counties, where FCM is raising awareness of the issue among local representatives and identifying changes to regulations, bylaws, and legislation that will be necessary to adapt to the new conditions.

"Local councillors no longer take water for granted," says Lachine, Que., Councillor John Hachey, who led PCP sessions for councillors in eastern Ontario towns earlier this year. "They now see it as a precious resource," says Hachey, who also chairs FCM's environment committee.

The province of Quebec apparently sees water in much the same way. Early this year, the government strengthened its drinking water legislation, which was already identified by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund as the strictest in Canada. Under the new regulations, water from any source serving more than 20 people must be treated and monitored.

Even private wells are to be inspected twice a year, and it will be illegal to distribute water that does not meet set requirements. More than 600,000 people, in about 10 percent of the province, get their water from private distributors, who had previously been unregulated. The new rules stop short of permitting municipalities from taking legal action against a source of water pollution, such as agricultural or industrial waste.

Implementing these heightened standards could cost Quebec municipalities as much as $600 million, though the provincial government has already agreed to cover about half of the expense through new infrastructure programs.

Water quality

  • In urban areas, runoff collects street litter and debris and washes into the receiving water body, worsening water quality by increasing the levels of phosphorus, nitrogen, sediments, animal wastes (fecal coliform and pathogens), and petroleum products.
  • Generally, groundwater is not as easily contaminated as surface water, but once it is contaminated, its inaccessibility makes it much more difficult to clean up. Groundwater can be contaminated by road salt, petroleum products leaking from underground storage tanks, nitrates from the overuse of chemical fertilizers, manure on farmland, toxic chemicals and pesticides, leachate from landfills, and accidental spills seeping into the ground.
  • Toxic chemicals are the biggest problem in terms of water quality in the Great Lakes, which supply 25 percent of Canadians with their water, and in many other water bodies in Canada.

As part of FCM's Sustainable Communities Conference, which was held in Ottawa in February, Hachey oversaw a discussion of the kind of environmental due diligence communities must conduct as part of PCP. In this and many other sessions at the three-day gathering, which was attended by some 450 municipal leaders from across Canada and other parties with an interest in environmental issues at the community level, it was clear that environmental sustainability is presented as an essential condition for the viability and growth of communities. But with reference to water, what qualifies as "sustainable" remained open to some debate.

"Community sustainability is a broad and important goal, but we need to take into account the definition of sustainability in the local situation," said Duncan Ellison, executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association. "What may apply to one community in an ecologically sensitive environment may not apply to another. Factors such as the absorptive capacity of the environment or ecosystem need to be assessed."

His conference presentation referred to several factors that are usually employed to indicate sustainable water use, such as per capita consumption, prices, and wastewater quality. None of these indicators should be taken out of the local context, he argued; to do so might misrepresent those characteristic features of a city, town, or region that determine how much or how little water is available, and above all how it is used.

For instance, the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has noted that North Americans have the highest per capita water use in the industrialized world. Environmental lobby groups frequently wield this observation to criticize Canada and the United States for their inefficient use of this resource, but Ellison suggested the finding should be analyzed in more detail.

"Are these figures accurately measuring per capita residential consumption of water, and if so do they reflect also social and cultural customs," he asked. "Or are they confusing other urban consumptive uses-for example, fire protection uses, which may be higher in some countries than in others."

Ellison was likewise eager to qualify the assertion that Canadians would use water more wisely if they paid more for it. Like oil, he noted, water is a commodity that economists describe as being price inelastic. "The unfortunate fact is that we become price immune unless the price increase is significant enough to result in the installation of water efficient devices, such as low-flush toilets, monitored irrigation systems, etc.," he said. "For some of these, since price itself may be ineffective, we may need to legislate change-sprinkling bylaws, water efficient housing, plumbing codes-to effect change."

Some parts of Canada were preparing to move in this direction well before events in Walkerton. In 1999, the Auditor General of British Columbia issued a critical report on the protection of drinking water sources. Though much of that province's drinking water comes from lakes and rivers, about a fifth of all residents depend on groundwater to meet their needs, and about 40 percent of the water used in rural regions is groundwater.

The report indicates that during the past 30 years the areas where groundwater levels have declined have steadily increased. The Auditor General stated that there were no limits on how much water can be taken from a well, no ongoing monitoring of aquifers, no responsibility assigned to anyone damaging an aquifer nor any enforcement of remediation or the prevention of further damage. In this light, the province was called upon to do some serious research into the matter before taking action.

"While other jurisdictions in North America have implemented measures to regulate groundwater withdrawals, we believe British Columbia may not have sufficient information about groundwater usage to determine what steps should be taken to protect this resource," concluded the report.

Drips and drops

  • Between 1972 and 1991, Canada's water withdrawal increased by more than 80 percent; during the same period, the population increased by only 3 percent.
  • Since 1950, global water use has more than tripled.
  • Some 18 percent of Canada's urban population lives in municipalities (including Victoria, Halifax and St. John's) that do not provide sewage treatment. In the Atlantic region, this number is more than 40 percent.
  • Bottled water: Canadians are gulping more of the stuff. The Canadian Bottled Water Association reports that in 1998, we swallowed 703 million litres of bottled water.

Among the proposals that are now being weighed is the creation of a single government agency to oversee the province's water supply. For now, though, government agencies with an interest in water are continuing to help municipalities deal with the logistics of serving their constituencies. Since 1984, B.C. has been running various programs to help local authorities upgrade their water treatment infrastructure. The latest program, which runs until 2007, represents a federal-provincial collaboration that covers two-thirds of the total costs of such.

Eric Bonham, director of the Municipal Engineering Services Branch of B.C.'s Ministry of Municipal Affairs, says this kind of help has proven to be invaluable to smaller, more isolated communities. "There's a great pride in these communities regarding their water resources," he says. "They don't treat it lightly."

But he adds that most of these communities do not have the financial resources to afford equipment, nor the technical expertise to know what equipment might be needed. In some cases, they do not even have control over activities in the watershed on which they depend. In such instances, transportation, industry, agriculture, mining or sewage could compromise the quality of drinking water.

"You've got to know where you're going with water," says Bonham. "You've got to know where you're putting your population. We've learned that good land-use planning must lead technology."

In just this fashion, Marq de Villiers suggests that it is more important for someone to claim the dead camel in the well, rather than worrying about the technology to remove it. He notes that about half of all the world's water running down to the sea has already been appropriated, and the demand for the rest will rise steadily with the world's population. Major changes and projects will be necessary just to keep pace with such growth.

"But most of the 'easy' sources for water have already been exploited, and much of the water is in places it isn't needed," he says. "Demand, it seems, will inevitably intersect with supply. And then what?"

Tim Lougheed is an Ottawa-based freelance writer.

This article first appeared in Forum, Vol. 25, No. 2, March/April, 2001. Forum is Canada's national municipal affairs magazine, published by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.