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article imageHow safe is your tap water? Special

By Stephanie Dearing     May 30, 2010 in Health
Guelph - We love to swim in it, splash and bathe in water. On a hot day, there's nothing more refreshing than a tall cool drink of water. And we all know we'll die without it.
If you reside in an Canadian city, the chances are, your tap water most likely is of excellent quality. Guelph Ontario, for example, has some of the best drinking water in the province, straight from the tap. But many urban dwellers tend to take the safety of their tap water for granted, never thinking that there are health risks associated with drinking tap water. Walkerton changed all that for Ontario. As a result, in an effort to protect drinking water in Ontario, 36 watershed areas across Ontario have been busy for the past few years, identifying threats to drinking water supplies.
The concept of watershed-based source protection is simple: protect drinking water supplies at their source from potential contamination. The threats, primarily bacterial and chemical threats, were measured according to criteria laid out by the Ministry of the Environment.
Men racing what appear to be miniature toy submarines in the Speed River at Riverside Park  Guelph.
Men racing what appear to be miniature toy submarines in the Speed River at Riverside Park, Guelph.
With the threat assessment reports completed, the process is now open to the public for input. The public of Ontario has until June 10 to review information and respond.
In Guelph, approximately 60 people turned up for the only public open house on May 26. There will be a second open house for business and industry on June 3rd.
After a presentation by City and Grand River Conservation staff on the assessment report for Guelph, the floor was open to questions; and there were no shortage of questions from the people who attended the session.
Some of the questions revealed flaws in the Ministry of Environment's measurements. One man raised the question of the impacts of quarries, citing the example of the Dolime quarry in Guelph. In 2007, quarrying activities resulted in Guelph's main aquifer being exposed after the company accidentally dug deep into the bedrock that normally protects the aquifer, as reported in the Guelph Mercury. The aquifer still has not been covered, but all quarrying activities at that location have been halted, City Hydrogeologist Dave Belanger said.
A schematic that demonstrates how most of the City of Guelph is vulnerable to contamination of the d...
A schematic that demonstrates how most of the City of Guelph is vulnerable to contamination of the drinking water system, highlighting the need to protect the water.
The question highlighted an important fact about drinking water in Ontario: most water is drawn from underground aquifers. Guelph's water supply, for example, comes from the Amabel Aquifer. Some commercial activities in Ontario, such as the Dolime Quarry, threaten drinking water supplies.
While the group who completed the threat assessment for the Grand River Watershed was proud to say it had included quarrying activity as a threat to drinking water supplies, other questions came up that made it clear that other threats to drinking water were not included in the assessment. Those threats include pharmaceuticals and other chemicals that have come through the waste water system; and housing developments; and the pumping of water out of sites as well as the taking of water for industrial purposes.
One audience member asked what impacts the collection of rain water for grey-water usage in new homes would have on the local aquifer, speculating that the hydrologic system could not recharge naturally. None of the agency representatives could provide an answer.
A photograph of a schematic that demonstrates wellhead vulnerability.  The different areas show the ...
A photograph of a schematic that demonstrates wellhead vulnerability. The different areas show the number of years it takes a pollutant to travel through the watershed to reach a well that supplies drinking water. The closer to the well, the less amount of time it takes.
Another problem posed by the assessment is the arbitrary lines drawn around well heads. The areas 100 meters around all well heads are to be strictly protected, as any pollutant that is released on the ground within that area is presumed to immediately enter the drinking water system. But anything outside of that 100 meters was declared to take 2 years to reach the water supply. Dave Belanger said, it is important to protect drinking water from all pollutants, even if the posed threat is 25 years upstream.
Ultimately, it turns out that virtually all of Guelph's drinking water is vulnerable to threats. Guelph's draft threat assessment report has not yet been posted online. However, agency representatives at the open house said they had identified nearly 2,000 potential "significant" risks to the city's drinking water, along with a number of minor potential threats. In contrast, the Toronto watershed area has no identified threats whatsoever due to the fact that Toronto drinking water comes from Lake Ontario instead of an aquifer.
Although work on setting up protection for Ontario drinking water has been ongoing since the Walkerton Inquiry, it is not anticipated that Ontario will enact legislation until at least 2012 to protect drinking water. In the interim, Dave Belange assured those attending the open house that municipalities have the capability to take steps to protect water in the event of an adverse incident. Just how much power the municipality has in such a situation is in doubt, looking at the example of the Dolime quarry in Guelph.
To learn more about the 36 watershed regions in Ontario, click here.
The next steps include confirming the threats to drinking water, drafting a plan to protect the water, and working to eliminate or reduce identified threats. To this latter end, there is some funding available to businesses and homeowners to assist them in eliminating threats.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) has an excellent question and answer page on watershed-base source protection planning.
Some of the people at the open house for threats to Guelph s drinking water.
Some of the people at the open house for threats to Guelph's drinking water.
More about Drinking water safety plan, Walkerton ecoli, Tap water, Bottled Water, Grand river conservation authority
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