The mainline media carried pictures of cars, recognized only by their rooftops, floating down roads and stories of Etobicoke homeowners having to literally swim to safety out of the windows of their own homes.
It's a cold winter afternoon on Duffield Road, a residential side street in mid-Etobicoke, and the crew from the Bering Street city works yard has a wet, miserable job in front of them. The sidewalk and street are slick with ice and dirty water that has bubbled to the surface from a broken water main. They'll have to shut off the water, dig down to the break, disinfect the exposed area and secure a sleeve over the fracture -- all before suppertime.
By KAREN HOWLETT
Friday, July 22, 2005 Updated at 1:29 PM EDT
Globe and Mail Update
Much of Ontario's tap water flows through pipes that are nearing the end of their useful lives, the result of decades of neglect, a report concludes in calling for a sweeping overhaul of the province's water systems.
The province's water and wastewater systems will require more than $30-billion in capital investments over the next 15 years to maintain the safe, accessible and affordable water Ontarians take for granted, the Water Strategy Expert Panel says in a report released Friday.
Without that investment, there will be more boil-water advisories, more flooding and more sewage diverted to rivers and lakes during storms, the report says.
While the situation is not yet urgent, it says now is clearly time for action.
”Collapse is not imminent,” panel chairman Harry Swain told reporters at a news conference at Queen's Park. ”We have time but not a lot of time to make this right.”
The report follows a year-long examination of the province's water system. It is part of the government's response to the tragedy in Walkerton in 2000, when seven people died and another 2,300 were made ill after drinking water contaminated with the E. coli bacterium.
David Caplan, Minister of Public Infrastructure Renewal, welcomed its findings.
”This is an important priority for our government,” he said. ”The decisions made will affect the province's water systems for many decades, and we must take the time to do it right.”
The Ontario government appointed the three-person last August to recommend ways to ensure that adequate investment is made, that water rates are affordable and that the systems remain publicly owned.
Mr. Swain said the problem will not be fixed overnight. "It took decades of disinterest and neglect on the part of all of us to create the failures of our present systems," he said.
Both municipal and provincial governments have neglected essential investments in the province's water systems for the past 30 years, the report says. Some systems contain pipes that are more than 100 years old.
Mr. Swain said there is a sense that the Walkerton tragedy is history, an isolated incident. He warned, however, that there could be another Walkerton if many of the aging pipes that transport water from reservoirs to households are not replaced.
The panel's work follows on a report from a government appointed inquiry into the Walkerton tragedy headed by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor. His inquiry concluded that the town's water had been contaminated by manure spread near a well. He made 121 recommendations and forecast that it would cost $280-million to implement them.
The panel's report says that while Walkerton was the catalyst for many recent changes in the water and wastewater sector in Ontario and across Canada, there is ”strong evidence that the status quo is becoming untenable.”
The cost of replacing and upgrading pipes would inevitably lead to higher rates for consumers, Mr. Swain said. Residents in smaller towns and rural areas, where water systems are more expensive to operate, would pay higher rates than those in large cities, although there would not be any ”huge price shocks” for consumers, he added.
Canada currently enjoy water rates that are among the lowest in the world water, and Ontario's rates are among the lowest in Canada, the report says.
The current stock of water and wastewater assets in the province is estimated at $72-billion. Many of the pipes used to transport water are old and deteriorating, and communities are not replacing them fast enough, the report says.
The investment required to return the system to good repair includes $11-billion for maintenance for existing pipes and $9-billion to accommodate population growth.
In the City of Toronto, half of the water network is at least 50 years old. In some other municipalities, parts of the system date back to the 19th century. In Ottawa, for example, some water mains date back to the 1870s.
The older the pipes, the more likely they are to break, the report says. In Toronto, the rate of water main breaks increased by 22 per cent from 2001 to 2003, it adds. Prince Edward County alone had 200 water mains break in 2003.
The panel makes the following recommendations:
– Phase in cost increases for consumers over seven years
– Create an independent Ontario Water Board to review business plans and proposed water rates
– Encourage innovations in technology to reduce costs
– Revitalize the Ontario Clean Water Agency by revising its mandate to include an arm's-length relationship with the province.