Protecting source water a huge task for many small communities

Gary Kean
Published on April 9, 2016

Cox’s Cove Mayor Tony Oxford takes a moment’s break from meetings at the Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador western regional meeting in Corner Brook Friday evening.

©Gary Kean/The Western Star

There are many things that a municipal council has at the forefront of its responsibilities and fewer are more important than protecting the water their residents drink.

“It ranks in the category of life safety,” said Cox’s Cove Mayor Tony Oxford when asked how much of a priority protecting his town’s drinking water supply is.

“Show me something in municipal government that trumps life safety?”

Oxford was one several dozen municipal councillors and staff from western Newfoundland who attended the opening of the regional meeting of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador in Corner Brook Friday evening.

Source water protection was the first topic on the agenda, which continues with more sessions on various other topics today.

Ever since the tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000, when tainted drinking water killed seven and left thousands sick, source water protection has been at the forefront of every council’s mind, said Deputy Mayor Mike Tobin of Stephenville.

“Unfortunately, some of the smaller communitiess don’t have the staff and sometimes the expertise, but they’re doing the best with it,” said Tobin.

The importance of raising awareness about source water protection was the focus of a resolution passed by Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador membership at its convention last November. Research had shown there were significant concerns in the province, particularly for communities with populations of less than 1,000 people.

Oxford said the duty of care goes beyond trusting the processes put in place at the water supply intake and has to also include monitoring of the watershed itself for any activities that could compromise water quality.

“On the other hand, if you do a good job monitoring, how do you enforce? ... You’ve got to have resources to enforce or your laws are no good.” he said, adding another layer of responsibility to the already onerous task.

Friday’s session was facilitated by Kathleen Parewick, Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador’s community collaboration officer. She said it’s surprising how many municipalities have not yet even taken the steps to have their public water supplies protected under the Water Resources Act.

“By doing that, you unlock the authorities embedded within that legislation to be able to enforce measures that prevent activities that are going to compromise a water supply,” she said.

After taking the step to legally protect a watershed, Parewick said communities must then monitor both the water quality and the watershed area itself regularly. That may be easier said than done, especially for large bodies of water, but Parewick said it is time to identify those that may require a different approach and to figure out how to make it happen.

The third step is planning. Parewick said the provincial government has templates for watershed management plans towns can avail of. Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador is also working with the province to develop simple public water supply protection protocols for communities who really need it.

Twitter: @WS_GaryKean