Postponing infrastructure investments can endanger public health, a lesson that the Walkerton community in Ontario, Canada, learned the hard way when their municipal drinking water supply had E. coli and Campylobacter jejuni bacteria contamination in 2000.
The water contamination sickened 2300 people and killed seven people in Walkerton’s 5000-member community.
A study that examined the Walkerton water tragedy says that the incident led to a public inquiry by a judge that uncovered a combination of factors that led to the event: the public utility’s improper practices and systemic fraudulence, recent privatisation of the municipal water testing, the lack of criteria governing the quality of testing, lack of processes to inform results to multiple authorities all contributed to the crises (Salvadori et al., 2009).
Additionally, the water supply contamination was due to an improper water treatment following heavy rainfall in late April to early May 2000, when it caused bacteria from cow manure to seep into a shallow aquifer of a nearby well. The town got its first report of illness from water contamination on May 17. (“Walkerton E. coli outbreak”, n.d.).
The Daily Commercial News reports that some of Canada’s pipes and watermains are aging, and funding is needed to replace them. A recently released study by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario (RCCAO) revealed significant water leakages in municipalities around Ontario province due to leaky and broken watermains. Many cities report a leakage rate of 10 percent, but some consultants who conducted actual assessments say that the rate of leakage can be as high as 40%. However, the highest percentage of leakage at between 41% to 67% was found in Smith Falls between 2003 and 2019.
The study also finds that the city of Ontario’s leakage rate is between 10 to 15% which is equivalent to about 104 million liters of drinking water per day that goes to waste. Aging watermain pipes – in Toronto, 16% are over 80 years old, and 11% are over 100 years old, are the primary reason for leaking, bringing other cascading effects like a waste of energy and GHG emissions.
According to the article, Ontario’s management of its infrastructure assets has come a long way, but it needs to continue investing in its water infrastructure.
When it comes to investing in infrastructure, the government needs to embrace a paradigm shift by looking at the benefits of investing in infrastructure, such as savings in water resources that would otherwise go to waste, power, reductions in GHG emissions. For example, fixing the leakage in a single section of York Region’s water system allowed the municipality a savings of 139 thousand cubic meters a year in water, $426,000 in annual costs, and energy to power 11 homes for a year.
For better water infrastructure management, the article has the following recommendations:
- broaden funding programs to support asset management programs that focus on climate action and innovation,
- funding to help extended asset-energy-carbon analysis that will define ROI beyond the financial aspects of asset management projects,
- and funding for municipalities to adopt best practices,
- lead innovation, and develop account plans for investment and performance optimisation.
What has happened in Walkerton 22 years ago is a reminder that neglecting the proper management of critical infrastructure can have severe and even fatal consequences to the health of its residents.
Infrastructure asset management plays a role in ensuring that the authorities will not repeat the past errors, and communities can rely on their infrastructure to consistently deliver safe drinking water and service at a lower cost.
Salvadori, M., Sontrop, J. M., Garg, A. X., Moist, L. M., Suri, R. S., and Clark, W. F. (2009). Factors that led to the Walkerton tragedy. Science Direct. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0085253815536120#ac0010
Walkerton E. coli outbreak. (n,d,). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walkerton_E._coli_outbreak