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Helping municipalities comply with safe drinking water rules

Municipalities and regulators have not always seen eye to eye on the best way to ensure the safety of drinking water. Ontario’s regulations, for example, are among the most stringent in North America, yet ambiguities and scientific inconsistencies have resulted in some municipalities investing in expensive groundwater treatments when more affordable and equally effective options were available for protecting public health.

That ambiguity will end in 2014 with the release of revised guidelines that combine up-to-date science with practical know-how to help municipalities protect the public from waterborne pathogens in the most cost-efficient way.

“While science can guide us a lot, it doesn’t always have all the answers. At the end of the day, there has to be a combination of top-level science, reasonable and cost-effective practice and a healthy dose of precaution with respect to managing risk and protecting public health,” says Dr. Monica Emelko, a Canadian Water Network (CWN) researcher who led work to revise the guidelines.

The Ontario government moved quickly to introduce stringent drinking water standards after an E. coli outbreak in May 2000 killed seven residents and sickened about 2,500 others in the small town of Walkerton. But system owners and industry consultants raised concerns that the accompanying how-to guidelines were difficult to interpret and not always based on the most current science.

In response, the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) turned to CWN, a Canada-wide network and credible third-party organization that could bring together key stakeholders in a collaborative and transparent process to ensure that Ontario’s drinking water policies are based on the best available science. Established as an NCE in 2001, CWN has strong linkages across the country with industry, government, academia and non-government partners, and a track record of producing practical science.

“Almost everything CWN does is focused on helping decision makers prioritize their actions and investments to protect public and environmental health,” says the network’s Executive Director, Bernadette Conant.

CWN drew on these connections to organize a workshop in Guelph in 2010 involving system owners, consultants, regulators and scientific experts from multiple disciplines, including microbiology, colloid (pollutant) transport, hydrogeology and treatment engineering. That workshop resulted in the formation of several working groups, led by MOE and CWN, charged with revising the guidelines for determining appropriate treatment for well water to protect public health from waterborne pathogens.

“The collaborative process we undertook set a new benchmark for cooperation and consultation in delivering sound public policy,” says Aziz Ahmed, Supervisor, Approvals and Licensing, at MOE. “The network’s participation was not only valuable – it was virtually indispensable.”

Cost-effective solutions

The new guidelines address what is referred to as Groundwater Under the Direct Influence (GUDI) of surface water. They provide municipalities with clearer guidance on how to comply with the ministry’s minimum treatment requirements, as well as cost-effective and more protective and science-based options.

“I think smaller municipalities in particular will be very happy with the approach we are taking,” adds Ahmed.

Both the consultation process and the guidelines are attracting interest from across Canada and the U.S. Emelko notes that many jurisdictions “go overboard in the wrong areas” in trying to protect public health from waterborne pathogens, when more affordable or more effective solutions are available.

Many parts of the U.S., for example, have just two choices for treating well water: “the bare bones minimum (which is sometimes no treatment) or the Rolls Royce treatment. There’s essentially nothing in between,” says Emelko, an expert in drinking water supply and treatment at the University of Waterloo.

Ontario currently offers three levels of treatment compliance, which will increase to four with the new GUDI guidelines. The first two levels – which happen to be the least expensive – would address the two greatest threats: viruses and bacteria. These options are suitable for wells with high-quality water with little evidence of contamination.

Life after CWN

The Canadian Water Network will sunset as a Network of Centres of Excellence in 2015, but the collaborative models and decision-making processes it has established, and many of its research activities, will continue with the support of multiple funders, such as the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium. Launched in 2009, the CMWC brings together municipal water managers, industry and all levels of governments to address common needs and approaches to tackling water management challenges.

More expensive treatments are required at the third level if testing indicates sufficient risk of contamination with other kinds of pathogens (such as Cryptosporidium), though such occurrences are rare.

The fourth treatment level – normally used for surface water supplies – is significantly more expensive. In addition to treating pathogens, it would also involve chemically-assisted filtration processes to remove solids such as fine particles from the water. It would also cost municipalities millions of dollars in physical infrastructure (e.g. pumps, mixers, reactors), higher energy usage, more waste production, ongoing operations and maintenance.

Ontario is the only jurisdiction in North America to formally implement this level of treatment. Emelko says the new guidance provides municipalities with affordable, evidence-based options that are equally or more effective in protecting public health.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘let’s be conservative and err on the side of caution,’ but having an all-or-nothing approach unnecessarily constrains municipalities. Why put treatments in place when they’re not required when that dollar can be much better spent protecting public health from waterborne disease in a different way?” says Emelko.

“At the end of the day, the regulated and regulators want the same goal,” says Conant, “which is the best possible use of time, money and resources to protect public health.”