Island water systems falling short of standards, report says

Less than half of Vancouver Island’s nearly 900 water systems comply with Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines — just one of many issues making water a continuing public health challenge, says a special report released Tuesday.

The Island Health report found that 70 per cent of systems did not submit the required number of bacteriological samples to authorities and 33 large systems that rely on surface water failed to comply with provincial treatment objectives. Water treatment for the capital region was found to be meeting standards.

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“We wouldn’t be putting this report out if things were wonderful,” said Dr. Paul Hasselback, a medical health officer for Island Health, which oversees the regulation of the B.C. Drinking Water Protection Act. “There wouldn’t be 32 recommendations arising if everything was in perfect condition.”

The recommendations in the report, Water, Water Everywhere: Drinking Water in Island Health, include watershed assessments for all water supply systems with more than 300 connections and continuing education courses for small system operators.

The report looks at oversight of all systems on the Island with the intent of decreasing public health risk. Health is only at risk where ongoing boil-water orders have been issued; 40 are currently in effect, typically in remote locations or with seasonal systems.

Issues highlighted included potentially harmful algae blooms on St. Mary Lake on Saltspring Island; protecting Comox Lake, the drinking water source for the Comox Valley, which is used by boaters; and the threat of water supply disruption from an earthquake.

“With outdated infrastructure using older, less resilient construction methods, an earthquake of a magnitude bordering on severe could cause extensive damage to our water distribution systems, resulting in the loss of water to consumers, possibly for a protracted period of time.”

So stock bottled water and some unscented bleach for emergency disinfection of contaminated water, the report recommends.

There are 24 large water supply systems serving more than 700,000 Island residents and 874 small systems serving the other 150,000 residents.

The Capital Regional District is in compliance with the surface water treatment standards, but “future circumstances may warrant the addition of filtration,” the report said.

The report is a snapshot of where systems were as of March 31, 2012. Since then, there has been much progress, Hasselback said, but a lot still has to be done. “I would say most are working extremely hard and diligently to come into compliance.” Others are challenged financially or by the work that needs to be undertaken, he said.

The B.C. Drinking Water Protection Act was put into force in 2003 to improve B.C. water standards in the wake of seven deaths caused by water system mismanagement in Walkerton, Ont.

When the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines came out in 1976, other provinces moved to meet them in a way that B.C. did not, he said. “The challenge is what do we need to do to provide a quality of water that we would find if we went to any other province or anywhere in the States. Most of our systems are actually working as hard as they can. As with any group out there, some people are more avid in moving forward and some haven’t been quite so embracing but are moving forward.”

One of the most important things citizens can do is be aware of where their drinking water comes from, how it’s treated and what improvements are still required, he said. It’s also crucial to remember that any water on the Island may be somebody’s drinking water. So please don’t pee into water sources, drive through backwoods water courses or pour paints and chemicals into water, Hasselback said.

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