For most British Columbians it is easy to take our access to safe, plentiful drinking water for granted. The disaster at the Mount Polley mine brings a long-standing problem into the spotlight: British Columbia’s failure to embrace source water protection planning.
In the aftermath of the disaster, hundreds of people were told not to drink or use their water. Many are still skeptical about the safety of the water coming out of their taps even now that the government has lifted the “do not use” order.
The best way to be sure that our drinking water is safe is to protect it from contamination in the first place. Source water protection was one of the key recommendations from the Walkerton inquiry into the drinking water contamination tragedy that killed eight people in Ontario in 2000. Today Ontario is doing source water protection planning; B.C. is not.
At its most basic, source water protection means keeping the sources of our drinking water as clean as possible by designating certain watersheds as drinking water protection zones and imposing higher standards on activities that could threaten those water sources. Among other things, source water protection planning requires that governments assess threats to water in designated areas and ensure that there are emergency response plans in place.
Back in 1999, a year before Walkerton, B.C.’s auditor general found that source water management was not integrated and that improvements were needed to protect the integrity of our drinking water. The auditor general’s report concluded that while the drinking-water sources that were evaluated naturally provide good water, almost all those water sources face risks from human activities that are not being adequately managed.
Fifteen years later, not much has changed. And that brings us to Mount Polley and the 10 billion litres of tailings that spilled into waterways near Likely, B.C. last week. Mining companies build tailings ponds to hold the massive quantity of wastewater they create each day. This has always been a dangerous proposition. As was the case in Mount Polley, the dams used to create tailings ponds can be breached. Tailings ponds can also leak into ground and surface water without raising alarm bells.
The danger that mining projects pose to drinking water sources is just one example of why B.C. needs to adopt source water protection as an official water management policy. From agriculture to fracking to forestry, industrial activity has consequences for drinking water safety that need to be consistently managed. If B.C. implemented source water protection planning, industrial operations in watersheds, like the Mount Polley mine, might be forced to upgrade their practices, to introduce emergency planning, and to accept extra inspections. New projects in watersheds would have to be built to a higher standard to comply with source water protection plans. Projects that pose too great a risk to source water would be less likely to be built at all.
What we have now are vastly differing levels of drinking water protection for people across the province. Vancouver and Victoria have exclusive control of their watersheds. In Vancouver, that means no industrial activity and that people cannot even enter the watershed unaccompanied.
Communities that have taken initiative and developed drinking water protection plans to address threats to local drinking water can’t get provincial approval for their plans. Small communities like Likely remain at the greatest risk without provincewide source water protection planning in place.
With much fanfare, the B.C. government has announced that its new Water Sustainability Act will allow the creation of “water sustainability plans”. However, since making the announcement, the government has not started the process. Worse still, the plans as they are currently being proposed will not adequately address major threats to drinking water sources such as tailings ponds. Accidents like Mount Polley show us just how vulnerable (and valuable) our drinking water sources really are and drive home the point that we need plans in place to protect them.
There’s no better time to get started than right now.