As transparent as water
Everyone involved in delivering drinking water to Canadians has heard the
worry and concern from their customers. Whether it's a headline,
around the cooler at work, or a conversation over lunch, I think
everyone would agree that water is now a top of mind issue for
people in Canada. Global warming, drought, floods, contamination,
people have begun to cast a wary eye at their taps. In response to this
general feeling of concern, cities, are spending 100's of thousands
trying to convince Canadians that their water is clean and
no cause for alarm.
Yet, on any given day in Canada, there are up to 1500 boil water
advisories (BWA) issued by health units and water authorities
in cities and provinces. Some date back years to the gas station
that closed in the 90's, others have hit our biggest cities in recent
months. That being Montreal, (more on that in a sec.) last May and Vancouver in 2006. Toronto came perilously close to a crisis when a massive ice storm reduced one of its water plants to back up generators.
Water can turn on a dime
Our neighbours to the south have a much tougher time of it. Be it bankruptcy of city infrastructure (Detroit) or cities that simply can't keep up, it's a much more worrisome outlook. This week in January brings us the fresh news that 300,000 people in West Virginia can't touch, drink, or even do their laundry with their water because a toxic chemical leaked through a hole in a storage tank and spilled into the water system feeding nine counties. As of this article there were some million or more litres a day of bottled water being rushed to the area.
According to Brad Woodside, senior vp at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, there is urgent need for some 100's of millions in water and wastewater infrastructure that isn't being spent. There just isn't anymore money. Cities are experimenting with P3 models but due to less than glorious past experiences, this raises eyebrows in the public. There has been in the last five years a push towards water metering to spark an interest in conservation, more cities are using rain water to take a load off the city systems. In summary, people are mobilizing at the grass roots level to ensure all Canadians have access to clean drinking water from their city systems. Mediaare giving unheralded access to water information that is in context and timely for all to view. The CBC, CTV, Global are all ready to put journalists and their resources to keep us informed about any water situation that may be an issue to people that count on the infrastructure to deliver clean water to their homes and businesses.
Media spokespeople for the most part try to get the facts out to the public in a timely manner. They can however only report what officials sources tell them. Which brings me to Montreal. On May 22, 2013 a boil water advisory that was issued for the southern areas of the city around 9:30 in the morning, was soon expanded to include most of Montreal, affecting 1.3 million people. The problem which had started at the the Atwater plant, had quickly spread to the Charles J. Des Baillets plant, then through six reservoirs, to most sections of the city . This reporter called the water plant and was told that the alarm system had failed to trigger during a routine lining replacement. According to a city spokesperson, the advisory was precautionary and anyone who had to know there was a water issue was notified. Yet, many of the people we called in the affected area said they had not been notified. By the middle of the next day bottled water supplies were dwindling, and there was concern in the service industry that there was trouble brewing. Restaurants were losing business, some had stopped giving out glasses of water with meals. others were giving out bottled water for free at their own expense. Stressful indeed, however nothing Montrealers couldn't adapt to.
There was the beginning of real worry when the advisory went into
the second day. Lab tests expected before noon were still not available by early evening. There were holes in the city's explanation that sediment entered the system when a pump, manufactured by Worthington Inglis Dominion Engineering, failed to shut down while a new lining was being installed. According to a pump manufacturer, pumps have no sensors and with a total of 12 pumps in the Montreal system it would be hard to determine which one was pumping at the time. According to him, the BWA was more likely caused by control failure or human error. In the midst of all this the mayor was arrested so things all the way around were confusing, both for watertoday and the general public. Luckily, by then the advisory had been lifted. T
It really comes down to this, As strange as the boil water advisory in Montreal got, it was a dry run for the real event. Officials need to disclose, support the medias and professionals who are on the front lines of these water situations. People need better information, much faster to keep their loved ones from harm. The cities need to ensure a transparent process, on time information. Let the people know exactly what time the water tests were done, what the results were. Everyone understands the pressure the systems are under, no one understands no transparency anymore. Montreal was a wake up call. Heed the advice or not.