Report Suggests New Agency, Spending to Protect British Columbia Drinking Water

Feb. 14, 2002
The threat of a Walkerton-style disaster would shrink significantly if British Columbia acts on recommendations from a provincial panel to protect drinking water, says the head of the government-commissioned review.

"We're already seeing a high level of boil-water advisories in British Columbia, about 250 a year," chairman David Marshall said Wednesday. "We believe that's unacceptable."

The panel was charged with reviewing existing water-protection legislation last September. It presented 26 recommendations to B.C.'s ministries of health services and water, land and air protection on Wednesday.

Neither minister was available for comment, but government spokesmen said the report would be reviewed.

Topping the panel's list of recommendations was creation of a water-protection agency that would cost about $1.5 million a year and oversee implementation of water-protection legislation. It would report directly to the minister of health services, said Marshall.

The panel also recommended several amendments to existing legislation, including giving priority to drinking water over other uses in high-risk watersheds. Marshall would not comment on which areas of British Columbia are particularly at risk.

Governmental water protection policies in Canada have been increasingly under the microscope after seven people died and 2,300 fell ill in May 2000 from an E.coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ont.

The panel recommended a cost-sharing formula that included provincial funding and new fees gathered from the public and business interests that operate in a community's water supply, such as fly-fishing outfits and logging companies. It would cost between 30 and 60 cents a person annually, Marshall said, adding Canadian households typically pay about $200 a year for their water. But he said companies operating in a community's water supply would "probably" pay an annual fee in the hundreds of dollars.

British Columbians need to realize how little they pay for their high degree of water consumption, Marshall said.

"The idea behind it is that, for increased protection, it's going to cost more money," he said. "We're trying to say it's a modest expenditure for reducing the threat significantly of a Walkerton or a water-borne disease happening in British Columbia."

One town administrator said he believes existing B.C. legislation does not go far enough to protect drinking water purity.

Drinking water standards aren't as rigorous as they could be, said Gord Horth, administrator for the town of Ladysmith on Vancouver Island.

"I think most municipalities, most water providers want to hit those higher standards, but there's always a question of money," he said.

Ladysmith was thrust into a state of emergency last summer by reports that its water supply was compromised by vandals. It was also reported Wednesday that it took four weeks for provincial health authorities to warn the 130-member community of Boyd, in the Kootenay region of southeastern B.C., that the local water supply had been contaminated by fecal matter.

Source: CP