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Walkerton Deaths Shake Canadian Confidence in Water Quality

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 30 May 2000 00:00

As this column is posted, the contaminated drinking water of Walkerton, a small farming community in southwestern Ontario, has claimed 5 lives and more deaths are expected. The E. coli-polluted water caused more than 1,000 people to seek medical treatment and about 20 individuals remain hospitalized with new cases expected.

The police and provincial government are now investigating municipal negligence under cries of "manslaughter" from Walkerton residents. A breakdown in the equipment that added chlorine to kill life-threatening bacteria in Walkerton drinking water was not reported to residents until days later. Walkerton's 4800 residents and hundreds of others from surrounding areas drank and used the water for days, unaware of deadly, contagious contamination. (For the latest news, visit City-TV's and click on Walkerton.)

Could a disaster like this happen in your community? Most people assume the water they drink is safe. Although there is a swing to bottled water, families still cook with tap water and wash their hands and food with it making them vulnerable to an E. coli outbreak.

Canadians have been lulled into a false sense of security after decades of living under caring, overly-protective governments. Now that provincial and federal governments have cut Canadians loose and down loaded many responsibilities to already financially-over-stretched municipalities, the Walkerton incident may become more common.

Whether you are considering a move or are committed to your current community, spend some time getting to know how responsible to their citizenry municipal leaders and workers feel. For instance, increasing numbers of cities and towns have automatic phone alerts from local police to keep residents up to date on criminal activity or dangerous individuals in their area. Do you know what emergency plans and procedures are in place to deal with urgent situations such as E. coli outbreaks? Communities with established resident-alert systems may find it easier to attract development and businesses in the future.

As governments withdraw, it is becoming increasingly necessary for private citizens to take responsibility for continued water quality. Lake stewardship, a movement strongly supported by Canadian cottage associations, is one example of the growing trend to private involvement in improved water quality.

"Water quality, water supply and the political and environmental aspects of this vital but scare resource need our collective attention today, tomorrow may be too late," according to Les Hunt, Executive Director of the Canadian Coalition of Provincial Cottage Associations (CCPCA). "The current tangle of federal, provincial and local regulations – many of them inconsistent with each other – does indeed resemble a thicket of brambles."

Volunteer monitoring of watersheds will help provide information about how watersheds function and how they are affected by human activities. CCPCA and other organizations intent on lake stewardship programs expect the information they collect to be used to "guide public policy, such as land-use regulations or watershed plans." Active programs exist in Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec and other parts of Canada but they are not strong enough yet to preserve Canada's rich water resources.

Your home, cottage and other real estate derive value from people's perceptions of the attractiveness of the communities these properties are located in. As watersheds are undermined by development and pollution, quality of life and property values may follow suit. What is a clean, reliable water supply worth to you?

For more on lake stewardship, visit the CCPCA site or the cottage association sites mentioned in my May 22, 2000 column.

Our thoughts are with the residents of Walkerton. Walkerton Relief Fund 519-881-0800

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PJ Wade

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