Water: Our most precious resource

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Standard of careDid you know there were water restrictions in Collingwood this summer? No? Well, there were. And that underscores the vulnerability of our community to climate change when a community situated on the Great Lakes has water restrictions.

The notice on the town’s web page said we were “experiencing drier than usual conditions” this summer – without explaining what “usual” conditions means, and whether the condition still applies. Well, the failure of communications this term and the need to communicate better and more effectively next term is the stuff for another post. This one is about water. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources wrote:

In Ontario, climate change is anticipated to result in milder, shorter winters with earlier snowmelt, less ice cover on lakes, changing rainfall patterns and increased evapotranspiration. All of these factors have an impact on the normal variation we experience in water supplies and will affect water infrastructure capacity and design… Changes to water supply will be difficult to predict and could mean that there may be less water available for residential use, agriculture, industry, waterpower generation, transportation, or recreation. Ecologically, changes to water supply will impact Ontario’s biodiversity, our wetlands, our shorelines and our forests.

Our municipal water system is good, but like most in the province, it was not designed to handle the increasing challenges of climate-related stresses we now face. 2018 is shaping up to be the fourth hottest year on record – the three hotter ones were the previous three years! Extreme heat encourages people to use water more – for lawns, golf courses, gardens, drinking, filling pools. Increased demand for water can empty water towers and reservoirs faster and the system can’t fill them as quickly as the demand drains them.

But water use is just one issue.

Toxic algae is in the news every week. In many parts of the Great Lakes – and in Ontario’s inland lakes, too – there have been warnings about swimming and drinking because of blue-green algal blooms (cyanobacteria). Only last week, a family’s dog died after swimming in Lake Ontario and ingesting algae. Lakes Erie, Ontario and now Superior all have serious problems with algae this year (Erie has had them for many years). A media story this weekend had the headline, “Hot summer resulted in blue-green algal blooms on Ontario lakes.”

We’re extremely fortunate that it hasn’t happened here.

Yet.

It’s likely we will see algal blooms in Georgian Bay. Even when you can’t see them, the algae are already in the water, just not in significant amounts. But algae thrive on the nutrients used to fertilize crops, lawns and gold courses. And we have a lot of farms, homes and golf courses in our region to contribute to the runoff. It’s only a matter of time.

Standard of careFortunately, we have a very good water treatment system that can filter out the toxic algae when it’s in small quantities. But a serious bloom near our water intake like those in other Great Lakes could overwhelm the system.

Our water intake is located not far offshore from the eastern end of Sunset Point. Our treated water discharge goes into the harbour – from where the bay’s currents draw it out in a counter-clockwise motion towards – you guessed it – our intake. Should we face a catastrophic event that dumped significant quantities of untreated sewage into the harbour – such events happened in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and many other Canadian cities this year – it might affect out water supply, too.

Collingwood is fortunate in that almost all of its stormwater drainage is separate from its wastewater infrastructure so that it is not as vulnerable to flooding events like those in other cities (which is why it’s illegal to connect your downspout to the wastewater pipe – cross connections – to avoid overwhelming the plant when it rains!). But other events could occur – pump failures, for example. Our staff have to be very vigilant these days to ensure our systems are operating properly.

Municipal water and wastewater treatment systems are not very effective dealing with some of the new challenges to water. In particular, some of the new chemicals like PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFASs (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that have been in the news this year. Prescription drugs in wastewater are also a growing problem – in late 2017 a study found that prescription drugs in Ontario’s rivers and streams were affecting fish and other wildlife.

Then there’s microplastics – recently recognized as an merging threat, as they migrate into our food chain and our drinking water. Even into our beerContact lenses, too, have been recently identified as a problem for water systems. Yet few water or wastewater systems are designed to deal with this problem. The technology is evolving, of course, but upgrades cost money.

All of this is compounded by climate-related environmental challenges to our wetlands, rivers, and streams. Not to mention that much of our green space is vanishing under pressure to grow and develop – meaning more paved surfaces, more cars, more lawns, more chemicals – which adds up to more polluted runoff getting into the environment without going through any treatment. That puts additional stress on our water treatment plant to prevent it from getting back into our drinking water.

Ditto with shoreline development: increased development along the waterfront means more chances for runoff and pollution. Plus an increase in recreational use of the water means more greywater to manage – too often simply dumped into the bay.

We think we have an unlimited supply of fresh water beside us – but that’s a mistake. There is pressure from the US to drain more water from the lakes for the drought-ridden states. The UN predicted in 2015 that worldwide water demand would increase 55% by 2030. There’s pressure from corporations to take the water in bulk to sell overseas. We need a strong voice on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative to be sure our concerns are heard.

Making sure our own drinking water is safe, and our wastewater discharge is properly treated is the responsibility of our dedicated, hardworking staff. They stay abreast of changing technologies and processes to make sure we have what we need to protect our water.

But it’s also the responsibility of council to ensure they are capable and competent and doing their job. Yes: council. The Safe Drinking Water Act puts the onus on elected officials to be sure we don’t face a second Walkerton event. Unlike other liabilities that occur in office, municipal politicians are personally liable for water quality and can be sued into bankruptcy for failing to live up to their responsibilities. Councillors have to be informed, and must read a LOT to shoulder this responsibility.

Which is why thinking councillors have a competent, professional water utility board to oversee the process and make sure all of the technical requirements are met, that the operators are trained and professional, that the system is run efficiently and safely. Only a foolish council would put itself into that position, filling the board seats with people uneducated and inexperienced in water-related issues, Ministry requirements and legislation. 

So, you ask: why then, in June 2015, did Brian Saunderson and his minions fire Collingwood’s water utility board and replace the professional, experienced and competent members with Saunderson and four of his minions? Why put a group of amateurs who dislike reading into positions where the slightest mistake could be tragic for the town?

Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson, Coun. Kathy Jeffery, Coun. Deb Doherty, Coun. Cam Ecclestone and Coun. Bob Madigan voted in favour of dissolving the CPUSB and bringing water and wastewater under town management while Coun. Mike Edwards, Coun. Kevin Lloyd and Mayor Sandra Cooper voted against the resolution.

The move was done to smooth the way to privatize our water utility to EPCOR. The Block didn’t want to face opposition to their secretive plans from the board – like they faced from the Collus-PowerStream board. Raising ethical and moral issues is so tedious when you’re doing backroom deals. So Brian and his lot fired them – even though doing so violated the town’s own bylaws (laws, you remember are for others).

There’s more than one irony in this, if you read the comments in the Connection story:

Derek Ali of BMA Management Consulting Inc. presented a report prior to the vote in which he outlined expected savings of just over $700,000 per year with adoption of the recommendations.
Noting that the external facilities are in “good condition,” Ali nonetheless outlined what BMA concluded to be various impediments to “transparency” and “accountability” in the services provided through Collus PowerStream Solutions and operations of utilities through the CPUSB.
“Municipal direct operations is the best practice,” Ali said of the recommendation to eliminate CPUSB and simplify the structure by putting water and wastewater in town hands.

Irony number one:  a sole-sourced consultant preaching accountability and transparency to Saunderson and his cronies is like singing to stones. Consider Brian’s group held almost 50 closed-door meetings to discuss the sale of our electricity utility without once ever consulting the public, let alone informing us of why. And how many public meetings were held about privatizing our water utility? Why, none, of course.

Irony number two: “Municipal direct operations is the best practice.” Saunderson’s group that has spent four years tripping over itself to sell off public assets and avoid municipal operations – without any public consultation, of course.

And when you read the story consider this: the town was promised a $700,000-plus savings a year from this move. That never happened: expenses, instead, rose! But I digress: let me return to the attempted backroom deal to give away our water utility

EPCOR representatives sat in on two sessions when the former CAO, John Brown, made sales pitches to staff about how great EPCOR was going to be when it took over the water utility. Judging by the questions they asked, staff were neither impressed nor convinced. No doubt the EPCOR reps were writing down the names of those who asked impertinent questions. The backroom deal fell off the table after the secret negotiations were exposed to the public. We were spared – but only temporarily. Expect it to happen if these incumbents get re-elected.

Water utility privatization has been a disaster in much of the USA (so much so that Baltimore recently passed a law to ban water privatization), the UK and elsewhere. Those lessons were, sadly, lost this term.

Water is our most precious resource. It has to be protected, managed properly and never taken for granted. That includes not just our municipal infrastructure and facilities, but our shoreline, waterfront and watershed. The challenges our water systems face are too important, too pressing for water to be used as a political pawn to further personal agendas.

For the past several years, I have worked with a non-profit association that advocates for municipal water systems and liaises with the provincial government over legislation and policy issues. I am also a representative on the regional source water protection committee. I am keenly aware of the importance of water and the challenges municipalities face.

I propose to return to a proper water utility management board – with a single political representative, not all five; the remainder populated by competent, experienced people who can assess the challenges and give us guidance for the future. Water is too important to leave to a bunch of inexperienced amateurs. Our lives depend on them.

I also want to bring back more public advisory committees to engage residents in the processes and get more input on a wide range of challenges and issues. Possibly we could create a shoreline/environmental committee to help identify then bring the issues to the fore and offer suggestions and ideas. As your next deputy mayor, I will ask for a public meeting on creating such committees.

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2 Replies to “Water: Our most precious resource”

  1. Security of our water systems is another concern we face:

    Bruce Schneier’s new book, “Click Here to Kill Everybody,” explains the security risks of a new world of household devices connected to the Internet. I asked him what the risks are, why they are so serious and what their consequences are for politics.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/04/hackers-used-a-fishtank-to-break-into-a-vegas-casino-were-all-in-trouble/?utm_term=.bd123876476e

  2. https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-environment-watch/how-long-can-great-lakes-fend-thirsty-world-water-diversions

    Hammered out over five years, the compact, aimed at keeping Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes, was approved by the legislatures of all eight states bordering the Great Lakes, Congress and the Canadian provinces and signed into law by President George W. Bush on Oct. 3, 2008.

    The soon-to-be-celebrated 10th anniversary of the compact’s creation comes at a time when the durability and effectiveness of the agreement are under close scrutiny. With a major proposed diversion being challenged in court and scientists warning of climate-driven drought in coming decades, the 10-year-milestone offers a timely opportunity to consider whether the compact is working as intended and whether it is likely to withstand the political challenges that will come with fending off a thirsty world.

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