At the time of writing, the Part 2 report of the Walkerton Inquiry, an independent public inquiry headed by Mr. Justice Dennis O’Connor, a senior Ontario judge, has just been released. The Part 1 report dealt with the circumstances surrounding the deaths of seven people and illnesses of 2,300 others in the town of Walkerton (within the Lake Huron watershed) in May 2000, stemming from a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria in the municipal water supply. That report presented recommendations for how such a tragedy could have been prevented (see Ontario Update, Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund newsletter, March/April 2002).
The Part 2 report makes comprehensive recommendations relating to all aspects of the drinking water system in Ontario, including the protection of drinking water sources; the treatment, distribution and monitoring of drinking water; the operation and management of water systems; and the full range of functions involved in the provincial role as water regulator.
What is both striking and heartening to Ontario environmentalists is the holistic approach that Mr. Justice O’Connor has taken in the Part 2 report, which he sub-titled A Strategy for Safe Drinking Water. The judge has concluded that the only way to plan and implement safe drinking water systems is to do good watershed planning: “I recommend a source protection system that includes a strong planning component on an ecologically meaningful scale — that is, at the watershed level. Drinking water source protection, as one aspect of watershed management, makes the most sense in the context of an overall watershed management plan…. A comprehensive approach for managing all aspects of watersheds is needed and should be adopted by the province. Source protection plans should be a subset of the broader water management plans.” Aquatic habitat activists welcome the report, since any land use planning done on a broad, watershed-wide level is bound to bring major improvements in habitat protection.
The Part 2 report contains 93 recommendations for Ontario government action. They include a requirement for drinking water source protection plans for all watersheds in Ontario; a call for the Ministry of the Environment to be the lead agency for all matters related to watershed management plans and source protection plans; a plea that the provincial government make available sufficient funds to complete the planning and adoption of source protection plans; and a recommendation that the environment ministry work with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, farm groups, conservation authorities, municipalities, and others to create a provincial framework for developing individual farm water protection plans. (The source of contamination of Walkerton’s water supply was a farm near one of the municipal wells, although the fault for the tragedy lay not with the farmer but with the local water system managers and with the provincial government’s poor monitoring of municipal waterworks).
To read the Part 2 report of the Walkerton Inquiry, please go to www.walkertoninquiry.com You may wish to read and/or print only selected portions, since it is almost 600 pages long. Chapter 1 (32 pages) provides an excellent summary and lists all the recommendations.
Premier Ernie Eves, Ontario’s new premier who replaces Mike Harris, has promised to implement every single one of Mr. Justice O’Connor’s recommendations. Although Premier Eves has not yet given any timelines for keeping that promise, Ontario residents must try to remain hopeful that the new Premier has more concern for the environment and how it affects human health than did his predecessor.