Networks of Centres of Excellence of Canada
Government of Canada

Common menu bar links

Network legacy: Canadian Water Network

Municipalities take lead in setting national priorities for water research

Canada has dramatically transformed its approach to water research over the past 15 years and that’s turning out to be a good thing for municipalities facing astronomical costs for infrastructure upgrades and tough standards for drinking water and wastewater management.

Fifteen years ago, municipal water managers relied almost exclusively on researchers at their local university when they needed expert advice on issues related to drinking water quality or wastewater treatment. But there were limitations with this approach: no one university had expertise in all areas of water, and researchers tended to focus almost exclusively on their own fields.

How times have changed. Today, municipalities have access to more than 120 researchers and 160 graduate students at 40 universities, as well as over 150 other stakeholders in industry, government and NGOs who together comprise the Canadian Water Network. CWN acts as a catalyst to connect the right people with the best evidence to address the practical realities of water management.

Photo: Halifax Regional Water Commission

Photo: Halifax Regional Water Commission

“Looking back, we actually had better linkages internationally through groups like the Water Research Foundation in Denver (Colorado) than we did nationally,” says Carl Yates, GM at the Halifax Regional Water Commission (HRWC). “Now we collaborate with universities from across Canada. We are also seeing more networking and collaboration between researchers and between municipal practitioners from every province. That cross-pollination of expertise has changed how we solve problems.”

Launched in 2001, CWN was designed to produce tangible and cost-effective solutions that help decision-makers better manage the country’s biggest water challenges: protecting public health, a growing infrastructure deficit (currently estimated at about $80 billion), and the environmental impact of increasing development and demand for resources.

Prior to CWN’s launch, water research in Canada was characterized by weak integration between institutions, disciplines and sectors. In most cases, it was also led by academic researchers as opposed to end users who are on the front lines. Under the CWN model, that paradigm began to change. CWN ensures that decision makers responsible for putting research into practice, including municipal water managers, policymakers and industry leaders, are at the table with university researchers to set priorities. The approach sees stakeholders work in a collaborative and transparent way to share funding, expertise, research and solutions.

“CWN acts as a national and credible third-party broker that focuses on science that is both relevant and actionable,” says CWN executive director Bernadette Conant. “Our role is to understand the collective needs of end users and to match the research to answer those needs. We provide research and advice  to all levels of government that helps them improve policies and practices related to managing water resources.”

Canada’s worst-ever outbreak of E. coli contamination in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000 made Canadians acutely aware of the importance of safe drinking water, and put a spotlight on the complexity and vulnerability of our water systems and the processes used to manage them. Seven people died and thousands more became ill.

The provincial government responded with stringent new drinking water standards, 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, CWN conducted research that led to the development of easy-to-understand guidelines to help municipalities identify cost-effective ways to comply with the new legislation, based on the best available science.

“Almost everything CWN does is focused on helping decision makers prioritize their actions and investments to protect public and environmental health,” says Conant.

Such was the case when a team of CWN researchers led by Michèle Prévost at École Polytechnique discovered that construction practices designed to reduce the risk of lead contamination in drinking water actually had the opposite effect.

“CWN has had the courage to fund really tough field work,” says Dr. Prévost. “This type of research doesn’t always result in published scientific papers, like lab experiments do, but the results are directly useful to utilities in protecting the health of citizens.”

Evidence from that project led to the creation of new sampling protocols for the Ontario and Quebec Ministries of Environment, and the development of a corrosion guidance manual by Health Canada. It also prompted several Canadian cities, including Toronto, Montréal and Halifax, to change how they go about replacing aging infrastructure.

Prior to the CWN project, cities would often do what’s referred to as a partial lead service line replacement. This involves swapping out the municipally-owned side of the water service connections—the portion of pipe running from the water main to the homeowner’s property line. But researchers found that digging up the street often dislodged lead particles in the pipes, resulting in the toxic metal leaching into tap water for short periods of time. Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can cause learning disabilities and a host of physical ailments.

“Once we found that out, Halifax and many other municipalities across Canada moved quickly to change our policies,” says Yates, who sits on CWN’s board of directors. “Here in Halifax, we decided that either we do the entire replacement or none at all—no more partial replacements. This was a hotly debated issue that CWN research put to rest.”

In Toronto, the city revised its plan to replace thousands of lead service connections, resulting in a more cost-effective and efficient lead mitigation program. “The City of Toronto embarked on a very aggressive program to remove all the lead pipes within its system. We estimated replacing 65,000 lead service connections in a nine-year period at a cost of $250 million. Dr. Prévost’s work really forced us to revisit the entire program,” says Michael D’Andrea, executive director of the City of Toronto's Engineering and Construction Services.

Research users take centre stage

Building on past successes, CWN will transition from its role as an NCE to a knowledge mobilization organization for water supported by multiple partners across sectors. As Canada's expert advisor and trusted manager of water knowledge investments for innovation, CWN will continue to coordinate public and private-sector evidence-based action on water, and understand where and how bringing evidence to the table can benefit key decisions. CWN will also continue to focus on key issues in Canada for which better water management is the solution, such as resilient blue cities, energy and resources, agriculture, and small and aboriginal communities. Many of CWN's existing activities will continue in new consortia led by research users.

One such group established by CWN in 2009, the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium (CMWC), puts end users in the driver’s seat when it comes to setting research priorities, funding projects and changing policies and practices at the local, provincial and national levels. In 2014, the group formed the CMWC Leadership Group to provide sustainable funding to the consortium. The leaders currently represent 12 municipalities that collectively serve 14 million Canadians.

One CMWC project is working to revise an engineering tool called “Intensity-Duration-Frequency” curves that help communities design stormwater systems capable of withstanding more frequent and intense storms, like those that caused catastrophic flooding in both Toronto and Calgary in 2013.

“Instead of us all going off and doing our own thing, we now fund a common approach where we have common goals,” says Yates. “Our focus is on practical science that gives us the biggest bang for our buck.”

CWN has supported the launch of other end-user research consortia, including one for pathogens in groundwater and another on watersheds. Former CWN scientific director Kelly Munkittrick, who led the pathogens consortium, says the model has changed water research and practice for the better in Canada.

“Municipalities and other partners are not going to participate in these initiatives, and put money on the table, unless they see real value, and they do,” says Dr. Munkittrick, who now works with end users in the oil sands sector. “One of the legacies of CWN is having all stakeholders engaged from day one. It has strengthened Canada’s capacity to respond to issues much faster and in a more cohesive manner than ever before.”