FEATURE COLUMN ...by Kelly Egan:



water testing about to boil over

Kelly Egan
The Ottawa Citizen

Monday, May 10, 2004

   All I really need to know about Ontario's new drinking water regulations I learned at the Richmond Co-operative Nursery School.
   The school has been operating in the basement of a church for almost 30 years and has roughly 40 children, aged two, three or four. It is a small operation, obviously, with two part-time staff and an annual budget of $38,000.
   It draws its water from a well, which is tested regularly without any adverse results. In the post-Walkerton world, that wasn't good enough.
   In response to the Safe Drinking Water Act, it was forced to install a treatment system. To determine what kind of system, it had to hire an engineering firm.
   So $5,000 or so went to the engineer and $2,300 went to buy and install the ultra-violet disinfection thingy. There went much of the co-op's financial reserves.
   Now the water has to be tested weekly, the samples being sent by courier to a lab in Ottawa, costing $1,800 a year, in perpetuity. Once a month, they have to draw a sample of raw water.
   Here's the cuckoo-nutso part of this. The children don't drink the water; never have, probably never will.
   Co-op president Christine Menzel said the children drink apple juice during snack time and, on rare occasions, will drink bottled water, as does the staff.
   The co-op tried to explain this to the ministry, but rules were rules.
   So now the nursery has the cleanest water this side of crystal springs so Johnny can go wee-wee in safety and maybe wash his hands.
   And we're helping to pay for it. For the first year, at least, the government gave the co-op a grant to cover the $1,800 needed to test the water nobody drinks.
   Ms. Menzel has wondered about the logic of all this, particularly since in her own rural home, she is not legally required to test the water.
   "All the parents say, 'Why do you have the system there?' To kill the bacteria. 'Then why do you need to test it?' Because they tell me I have to. That's the absurd part."
   (It is ironic, at the very least, that the bottled water on grocery store shelves does not come with any kind of purity guarantee.)
   In rural Ontario, you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of little well-fed operations that are being forced to add treatment systems to their water supplies.
   These include lakeside cabins, children's camps, churches, restaurants, motels and seasonal tourist spots.
   The new regulations, phased in over at least a four-year period, have caused a wicked backlash, including the sprouting of protest groups and vows of defiance.



   Look at a place like Lanark Highlands, with a population that triples to a summertime high of 15,000. It doesn't have a single municipally-run water system. Even the township office is on a well.
   Chief administrative officer Tim Simpson is working on a plan to have disinfection installed in 14 township facilities, costing roughly $42,000, by the end of 2005. The regulations are affecting dozens and dozens of township businesses and the resistance is quite palpable, he explained.
   "This issue is going to boil over. I've been in the municipal administration field for 15 years and I've personally never been as frustrated with any issue as this one. This thing has just taken the cake."
   Mr. Simpson said there is nothing so wrong with the township's water that it requires this kind of regulatory intrusion.
   "It's a complete waste of financial and human resources." The paper trail for an adverse water test -- for trace amounts of excess sodium, for instance -- he described in frightening terms.
   It is not lost on rural residents, said Mr. Simpson, that a village resident is not required to treat his own water but must only consume treated water -- probably from the same aquifer -- when he visits church or the bingo hall.
   Discontent is so loud, so widespread that even the government has heard the message.
   Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky has been confronted several times about the issue, including at a meeting of 40 reps from the Rural Ontario Municipal Association.
   "We have inherited a flawed regulation," the minister plainly stated in the legislature in late April.
   Ms. Dombrowsky told MPs she has instructed staff to examine the regulation and come back with improvements so that churches and charitable groups in community halls are not driven out of existence. There may be news on this as early as this week.
   (Her use of the word "inherit" is transparently partisan, yet insightful. For all their bluster about small government, the Tory regimes of Harris and Eves left Ontario with an inspector behind every tree, cornfield and sawdust pile. Common Sense Revolution? Give that one a flush.)
   It has been said over and over by country people who feel victimized by the fallout from Walkerton, yet it bears repeating.
   That community, where seven people died from bad water, had chlorination and a treatment plant and, on paper, lots of checks and balances.
   And disaster still ensued. The question is: how many thousands must be punished, for the mistakes of a few?

   Contact Kelly Egan at 726-5896 or by e-mail, kegan@thecitizen.canwest.com

 The Ottawa Citizen 2004