The Protection of Drinking Water

September 12, 2019 posted by

Thanks for joining us. In this audit, we looked at whether the Ministry
of Health, which I’ll simply refer to as Health from here on in, and the Provincial
Health Officer were taking adequate action to protect drinking water for all British
Columbians. We focused on the three pillars that government
established to protect drinking water. Those pillars are:
One, the leadership and coordination by Health, Two, the actions by Health and the Provincial
Health Officer, and Three, the accountability of Health and the
Provincial Health Officer. We undertook this audit because of the considerable
importance of safe drinking water, and because risks to drinking water are increasing. Overall, we found that Health and the Provincial
Health Officer are not sufficiently protecting drinking water for all British Columbians. If drinking water is exposed to harmful pathogens
without adequate treatment during its journey from source to tap, people can become sick
with water borne illness. Thankfully, B.C. has not had a known outbreak
of water borne illness since 2004, but a single event that contaminates a drinking water system
can cause serious health impacts for numerous people. The first pillar that we focused on was about
Health’s leadership and coordination efforts. We found that the ministry has not been as
vigilant about protecting our drinking water as it has been in the past. Its leadership has waned and many of the committees
that were formed to facilitate the protection of drinking water have disbanded. We also found that Health had not developed
a strategic plan to provide clear direction on the actions needed by the ministries, and
regional health authorities, to improve the protection of drinking water. Overall, we found that there is a need for
a more comprehensive review of the legislation and regulations to ensure that government’s
commitments that were made in the 2002 Action Plan for Safe Drinking Water in British Columbia
are not compromised. The second pillar that we looked at involved
the actions taken by Health and the Provincial Health Officer. We found that while Health had taken a number
of actions, more needs to be done. The Provincial Health Officer hasn’t demonstrated
adequate oversight of drinking water officers, nor has the office shown the tracking and
resolution of significant impediments to drinking water protection. The Provincial Health Officer has the authority
under the Drinking Water Protection Act to recommend to the Minister of Health, a localized
drinking water protection plan to prevent threats to a drinking water source. For example, the Provincial Health Officer
recommended a protection plan for the Comox Valley in 2008, 2010, 2015, and 2018, however
government still hasn’t established a plan for the area. Finally, we found that efforts to protect
small water systems have been limited, yet 90% of B.C.’s water systems are deemed small
water systems. To give you a sense of scale, there are about
480,000 people in B.C. that rely on small water systems. Finally, for the third pillar that we looked
at, we found that overall, Health and the Provincial Health Officer’s accountability
to ensure drinking water was protected is concerning. Neither organization has kept government sufficiently
apprised of the ongoing risks to drinking water. Health hasn’t provided information on drinking
water in its annual service plan reports and the Provincial Health Officer has reported
sporadically on drinking water and potential issues over the years, but not annually, as
required in the Drinking Water Protection Act. In June of this year, the Provincial Health
Officer provided its report for the years 2012 to 2017 and made 32 recommendations. Unfortunately, many of the Provincial Health
Officer’s recommendations from previous reports have seen limited or no progress. In conclusion, we found that Health and the
Provincial Health Officer are not sufficiently protecting drinking water for British Columbians. We made eight recommendations in the report. Five are to Health and include providing leadership
to coordinate the ministries, undertaking a legislative review, identifying risks and
developing a strategic plan, and reporting out to the public. The other three recommendations are for the
Provincial Health Officer and include taking action to improve its oversight, reviewing
legislation, monitoring progress and trends, and reporting out on a timely basis. Given the complexity of drinking water protection
and the challenges faced by the Ministry of Health, it’s time for government to clearly
articulate roles and ensure that ministries and agencies are held accountable. That’s our report summary for today. Thank you for joining us. We’d like to encourage you to read the full
report. It and our other reports are available on
our website at

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