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Water Author Learns From Ontario’s Leadership In Water Conservation

Bob Sandford visited Waterloo and Toronto for his Ontario stop on the FLOW cross-Canada tour  and reports that Ontario is the most progressive province that he has seen so far in terms of water policy reform.

Ontario’s major focus has been recognition of the importance of water to the economy, and the province has made a great effort to encourage innovation and creativity in the business sector, both in terms of water use, and understanding the role water plays in economic interests. This has been complemented by the Province’s recent implementation of the Ontario “Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act.”

The Walkerton Crisis of May 2000, in which the public water supply became infected with deadly E. Coli bacteria that sickened thousands and killed seven, is widely believed to be the impetus for Ontario’s progressive approach to water policy reform. An event that is still discussed among Ontarians today, Walkerton was a major event that helped alert people to the crucial nature of careful water management.

The act helps municipalities improve the efficiency of municipal infrastructure and services by identifying innovative, cost effective solutions to solve water challenges. In short, making water an economic concern is working in Ontario as an effective measure in the advancement of water policy reform. However, as Bob notes, we must be careful in treating water as an economic resource, as its ecological, spiritual and sentimental value is often hard or impossible to quantify, and these aspects must be taken into account when planning for effective water policy.

Bob emphasized the importance of the leadership that has been demonstrated in Ontario in building its innovative approach to water. Useful advice from senior government officials has helped Ontario move forward, and recently re-elected Premier Dalton McGuinty has shown significant leadership and support for water conservation.

The positive example from Ontario highlights the importance of addressing the water infrastructure deficit in Canada. We have designed our water infrastructure in a way that encourages it to be wastefully consumed, partly because we have spent a lot of capital on creating infrastructure to deal with peak periods, e.g. the amount of water consumed for outdoor water use in the summer is particularly high. Replacing this infrastructure is expensive and thus Ontario’s actions with water conservation are worth noting. Complementing this is the need to think more carefully about the water-energy nexus and how this can be acknowledged in water policy reform.

Bob mentioned that through his tour and general observations, most people living in southern jurisdictions in Canada are out of touch with water – its materiality, management and value. We must bring water back into the public imagination if we are to be successful with water policy reform in this country.

The discussion in Waterloo mainly focused on lessons learned from the Northwest Territories with prominent panelists including Dr. Chris Burn, David Livingstone and Stephen Kakfwi. Both Stephen and David were the architects of the NWT water strategy. One insight offered from this panel was that to make water policy reform possible, as evidenced in the NWT, you have to continuously engage, build and maintain relationships with multiple groups that have vested interests in water resources.

In Toronto, Lynn Patterson of RBC’s Blue Water Project moderated the discussion, demonstrating an outstanding commitment from the private sector to this critical issue. Water conservation, public interest in water, and recognition of the importance of the NWT example all came up in the Ontario discussions, giving Bob renewed hope for effective action on water policy reform.

Bob’s next stop on the tour is Nelson, British Columbia on Friday November 4th. Stay tuned for a forthcoming blog post on Bob’s experiences in Quebec following his Ontario tour stops.

Robert W. Sandford, EPCOR Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of United Nations “Water for Life” Decade, and author of ACT’s Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance reports, is touring Canada speaking about water governance policy. Tim Shah, ACT PICS Water intern is reporting on Robert’s progress in this blog.

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