The B.C. government is failing to protect drinking water from increased risks that include climate change and industrial activities such as logging, auditor general Carol Bellringer found in a report released on Tuesday.
Bellringer’s independent audit zeroed in on the leadership roles of the health ministry and provincial health officer, saying accountability measures for safeguarding drinking water are “of grave concern.”
“We found that health and the PHO [provincial health officer] are not sufficiently protecting drinking water for British Columbians,” Bellringer told reporters at a news conference.
The health ministry does not know which water systems are at risk and has no strategy to address those risks, the report concluded.
Risk of contamination increases in small water systems
The audit comes as communities around B.C. grapple with imminent plans for logging and other industrial activities in watersheds that supply their drinking, irrigation and, in some cases, fire-fighting water.
In the Regional District of Central Kootenay, at least seven communities face plans for logging in their watersheds.
They include the bucolic village of Glade, where residents have gone to court in an effort to protect their drinking water from logging on nearby mountain slopes that feed Glade Creek, which supplies much of the community of 300 with water.
In April, members of the Glade Watershed Protection Society were surprised and dismayed when B.C. Supreme Court Justice Mark McEwan said they had no legal right to clean water.
“Do you have a right to clean water?” McEwan said in court. “I’d suggest you don’t … there just is nowhere in the law where you can look and say, ‘there it is — there’s my right. I have a right to clean water.’ ”
Heather McSwan, a spokesperson for the Glade Watershed Protection Society, said she hopes the auditor general’s report will raise awareness about the need to safeguard drinking water in B.C.
“Maybe there’ll be some positive action on getting it protected,” McSwan told The Narwhal.
McSwan said the report should catch the eye of people who aren’t involved in the type of struggles facing Glade and other communities.
“They might say, ‘Hey, I wasn’t aware that protecting our drinking water was so difficult and that there was even a need to protect drinking water, that it wasn’t already protected by the legislation we have in B.C.’ ”
B.C. has 4,800 known drinking water systems to regulate — far more than other provinces — and 90 per cent of them are classified as small water systems, serving less than 500 people, Bellringer pointed out.
“The risks of contamination are intensified in small water systems, where some communities may be challenged to afford sufficient water protection systems or to attract and retain qualified water treatment staff,” she told reporters.
No drinking water protection plans developed in last 16 years
Sonia Furstenau, Green Party MLA for Cowichan Valley, said the report highlights the need to take immediate action to protect drinking water.
“Communities across the province are experiencing the impacts of climate change and industrial activity on their water sources,” Furstenau said in a statement. “This is especially true of small, rural and Indigenous communities.
Bellringer’s report singled out the Comox Valley as one example of the government’s failure to protect drinking water. The Comox Lake is the only viable drinking water source for a community of 45,000, the report noted.
“The lake, however, has no restrictions on access and the shores are owned by a variety of private and public entities,” the report said.
In keeping with current legislation, the provincial health officer asked the health minister to establish a drinking water protection plan for the Comox Valley in 2008, 2010, 2015 and 2018, Bellringer said.
“However, government still has not established a plan for the area,” she noted.
Bellringer’s audit found not a single drinking water protection plan has been established in the province over the past 16 years, since the B.C. government committed in 2002 to ensuring safe, reliable and accessible drinking water for all British Columbians.
Climate change affects water quality and quantity
Among the drinking water risk factors cited in the report are increasing demand from a growing population, recreation in source watersheds and the proximity of agriculture and livestock and range activities to drinking water sources.
“In rural and remote communities that are supplied by small water systems, these risks are amplified,” the report noted.
B.C.’s small drinking water systems serve approximately 480,000 British Columbians.
Yet actions to address risks in small water systems are “inadequate,” Bellringer concluded.
The report also found the quality and quantity of drinking water sources will be affected as climate change brings more wildfires along with more frequent and intense rainfall, flooding and severe droughts.
“The increase in frequency and intensity of these climatic events is expected to increase the need to upgrade drinking water treatment and distribution infrastructure,” it said.
“This is of particular concern in B.C., where most of the water infrastructure is over 50 years old, and aging equipment can be at risk of failure during climatic events.”
‘Constant vigilance’ of water systems necessary to protect public health
Bellringer told reporters the last known outbreak of waterborne illness in B.C. was in 2004.
“But a single event that contaminates the drinking water system can cause serious health impacts for numerous people. It’s estimated for every reported case of illness hundreds may go unreported,” she said.
“Constant vigilance of our drinking water is necessary to protect public health.”
The audit did not include drinking water systems on First Nations reserves because they fall under the jurisdiction of the First Nations Health Authority, Bellringer said.
The health ministry’s leadership role is “extremely complex and challenging” because 23 different pieces of water protection legislation are parcelled out among various ministries, the report noted.
But the health ministry did not effectively coordinate the involvement of all the ministries and agencies involved and lacked a strategy for providing clear direction for drinking water protection, the report concluded.
While the ministry has taken some action to mitigate risks to drinking water, “more needs to be done,” Bellringer said in a statement.
“Specifically, the ministry does not know which water systems are at risk and has not developed a strategy to address them.”
The audit found the health ministry did not follow through on a legislated mandate to provide updates about water protection in its annual service plans, while the provincial health officer did not demonstrate adequate oversight of drinking water protection officers.
Government not sufficiently informed about ongoing risks to drinking water
“We found that health and the PHO have not kept government sufficiently apprised of the ongoing risks to drinking water,” Bellringer said.
The audit also found that many of the committees formed to help protect drinking water have been disbanded. The health ministry failed to develop a strategic plan to provide clear direction on actions needed by the ministries and regional health authorities to improve drinking water protection, it concluded.
The ministry “has not been as vigilant about protecting our drinking water as it has been in the past,” Bellringer said, noting that the ministry’s leadership and coordination role has waned over time.
The provincial health officer was empowered to provide an annual report to the health ministry on actions taken to protect drinking water, “but this reporting has occurred infrequently,” the auditor general found.
Recommendations the provincial health officer made to various ministries and agencies in progress reports in 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2015 “have seen limited or no progress,” the audit concluded.
The report makes eight recommendations to identify risks, improve oversight and monitor progress and trends.
Recommendations include a review of drinking water protection legislation and regulations, led by the health ministry, to identify risks and legislative gaps that may affect the government’s commitment to safeguarding drinking water.
The audit also recommends the health ministry identify risks related to source water protection, drinking water treatment, distribution and small water systems.
The audit will now go to the public accounts committee of the B.C. legislature, and the committee will call witnesses. The health ministry will be required to provide an action plan for the committee.