Proposed small water system bill a great idea

What a good idea MPP Mike Mantha has to lobby the Ontario government for support for small (fewer than 100 users) municipal water treatment plants through a private member’s bill which, if successful, would move the yardstick on the matter from a lobbying effort to a position of policy.

The issue, at least on Manitoulin, has been prompted by the enormous additional burden the residents of Sunsite Estates, a subdivision within the Township of Assiginack, are expected to bear related to the cost of the water treatment plants that serve the limited number of users on their system.

This concern also applies to the residents of the Village of Sheguiandah who are serviced by the community’s water treatment plant (there are fewer than 85 of them) and the Village of South Baymouth that also supports a water treatment facility (and a sewage treatment plant too, in their case) with a small number of taxpayers paying the ever-increasing costs of maintaining and monitoring these systems.

All of these plants had been in place prior to the event in Walkerton a dozen years ago where contaminated water killed a half-dozen residents of the community and permanently damaged the health of many others.

Although incompetence and mismanagement of the Walkerton water treatment plant were clearly shown to be the root cause of the tragedy in the subsequent enquiry, nevertheless the province mandated an immediate upgrade of existing facilities, large and small, and virtually every small municipality also moved away from the practice of monitoring their water treatment plants and water quality with their own staff because of liability issues (once again, think of Walkerton) and moved almost without exception to third-party outsourcing of this essential service.

The perfect storm that was set in motion by the Walkerton tragedy and its enquiry has led directly to the handful of residents in the Sunsite’s subdivision facing a 41 percent increase on their water rates.

While the Assiginack council has agreed to a band-aid one-year measure of relief, the reality is that when the cost of operating such a facility is spread among only a handful of users, like those in Sunsite, Sheguiandah and South Baymouth, the per household costs will just continue to climb.

There are many such small systems, with only a small number of users, across the province. A disproportionate number of them are in Northern Ontario communities.

Mr. Mantha’s proposed private member’s bill will suggest that the Ontario government should recognize the unusual burden a handful of people have to bear if they are in a community serviced by a treated water system where the community cannot be reasonably expected to expand to a point where a few hundred, as compared to a few dozen, water users are sharing the cost of a treatment plant’s operation and oversight.

Mr. Mantha’s bill will likely also recognize that, within a given municipality, it is neither realistic nor fair to expect residents who are not connected to the small water treatment system to subsidize their neighbours when they themselves may have to pay for the maintenance of a well or are already paying to purchase and haul water to their homes or businesses.

Mr. Mantha’s proposed bill will appeal to the government to recognize the fact that it is better to have the North as populated as possible and if this means some relief to the costs of people who, through no fault of their own, are paying higher and higher fees for the privilege of having their water supplied by a small water treatment system, then so be it.

It’s important to have rural villages like South Baymouth and Sheguiandah and rural residential areas like Sunsite Estates.

It’s also difficult to imagine a developer creating another property like Sunsite Estates and providing the infrastructure of treated and piped water in the current environment.

Indeed, 20 years ago, would the residents of Sheguiandah or South Baymouth have been keen to have treated and piped water available to them if they had known the eventual high cost? Likely not. They would have continued to “make do” with wells and hauled water.

But these communities and the many others like them are important and it’s vital to make sure that people can afford to live in them and that the communities themselves remain both vital and viable.

Good luck, Mr. Mantha. Your proposed bill must certainly receive wide support, across party lines, at the very least from your rural colleagues.