B.C. not sufficiently protecting drinking water, says auditor general
The province's auditor general says climate change, industrial activity and population growth are all having impacts on B.C.'s drinking water
VICTORIA – The system of accountability to monitor protection of drinking water in British Columbia is of grave concern and doesn’t appear to be a Ministry of Health priority, says the province’s auditor general.
Carol Bellringer says in an audit report released Tuesday that the health ministry and the provincial health officer are not sufficiently ensuring the safety of drinking water for the people in B.C., and she recommends a leadership overhaul and development of a strategic protection plan.
Her report says there hasn’t been a known outbreak of water borne illness since 2004, but one contamination event can harm many people.
“Overall, (the) Health (Ministry) and the provincial health officer’s accountability to ensure drinking water was protected is of grave concern,” the report says. “We’re making eight recommendations. Five are to the Health (Ministry) and include providing leadership to co-ordinate the ministries, undertaking a legislative review, identifying risks and developing a strategic plan, and reporting out to the public.”
The report recommended the provincial health officer improve oversight and monitoring of drinking water safety.
Almost 20 years ago, in the rural community of Walkerton, Ont., more than 2,300 people were sickened from E. coli contaminated drinking water and seven people died.
An inquiry later produced recommendations that influenced drinking water policy across Canada, Bellringer’s report says.
One recommendation calls for universal adoption of the multi-barrier approach to safe drinking water, which reduces contamination risks, says the report.
Bellringer said climate change, industrial activity and population growth are all having impacts on B.C.’s drinking water, but the government has not been keeping up.
“We found the Ministry of Health has not been as vigilant about protecting our drinking water as it has in the past,” said Bellringer in a telephone news conference.
The ministry was meant to provide leadership and co-ordination but over time that leadership has waned, she said.
The report says it found no reporting on outcomes of actions the health ministry had taken to protect drinking water from 2016-2018.
“This may be because health had not identified drinking water as a priority area,” says the report.
The Ministry of Health said in response to the audit that it accepts a government-wide commitment to a drinking water strategy will increase protection.
The ministry said it is developing a water system risk management plan focused on “watershed to tap; sink to watershed.”
The audit cites several B.C. drinking water issues that surfaced from insufficient monitoring and leadership.
The report says the Hullcar Valley area of the North Okanagan had been on a water advisory notice since 2014 due to elevated levels of nitrate concentration in the drinking water. Confusion among various government ministries resulted in poorly co-ordinated responses to the water issue, says the report.
The report also notes unresolved concerns about drinking water protection in the Comox Valley that date back to 1963. It also points out a lack of government guidance on water protection issues connected to a landfill operation in the Shawnigan Lake watershed on Vancouver Island.
Cowichan Valley Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, who represents Shawnigan Lake constituents, said in a statement that Bellringer’s report reiterated concerns of many communities that the government is not doing enough to protect drinking water.
“When it comes to watersheds, the province and governmental agencies are failing to fulfil their responsibilities,” said Furstenau. “In an era of climate change, protecting water becomes even more important.”
Bellringer’s report says contamination risks are intensified in B.C.’s small water systems where government oversight has been limited. The report says of B.C.’s estimated 4,800 water systems, 90% are small and serve about 480,000 people.