Water supply and sanitation in Canada

Water supply and sanitation in Canada

Water supply and sanitation in Canada is nearly universal and generally of good quality. It is a municipal responsibility under the regulation of the provincial governments, in partnership with the federal government. Water use in Canada is high compared to Europe, since water tariffs are low and 44% of users are not metered.

Despite a commitment by the federal government to promote increased cost recovery, only 50% of the cost of maintaining and operating water infrastructure is actually being recovered from users through tariffs, the rest being financed through taxes.

Access and service quality

Access to water supply in Canada is nearly universal. Concerning sanitation, nearly 75% of Canadians are serviced by municipal sewer systems. The remaining 25 percent of the Canadian population is served by septic disposal systems [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/manage/effic/e_sustwq.htm Environment Canada] ]

Service quality

Water supply

Canadian drinking water supplies are generally of excellent quality and supply is continuous. [ [http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/water-eau/drink-potab/guide/index_e.html Health Canada] ]

On occasion, however, despite the best efforts of water suppliers and in some cases for reasons beyond their control, municipal water supplies can become contaminated either chemically or biologically. If this occurs, residents typically are advised to take precautionary measures, such as boiling water before consuming it. [ [http://www.cwwa.ca/faqmunicipal_e.asp CWWA] ] In an average year, some 500 boil water advisories normally of 3 to 4 day durations, are issued in respect to municipal water supply services, often following severe environmental conditions affecting the quality of the water supply source. [ [http://www.bvsde.ops-oms.org/frwww/eva2000/Canada/informe/inf-07.htm WH0] ]

An unusually extreme case of poor water quality has been The Walkerton Tragedy, a series of events that accompanied the contamination of the water supply of Walkerton, Ontario, by bacteria in 2000. In 2001 a similar outbreak in North Battleford, Saskatchewan caused by the protozoan Cryptosporidium affected at least 5,800 people.


In 1999, 97% of the Canadian population on sewers received some form of wastewater treatment. The remaining 3% of Canadians served by sewage collection systems were not connected to wastewater treatment facilities in 1999 and discharged their untreated sewage directly into receiving water bodies. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/manage/effic/e_sustwq.htm Environment Canada] ]

Link to water resources

While Canada has lots of fresh water (7% of the world's renewable freshwater), this water is not always available where needed. With 85% of the population living along the southern border with the United States and most of the country's fresh water draining to the north it is not surprising that those drainage basins with higher freshwater use to availability ratios are also located in southern Canada.

The drainage area of greatest concern is the South Saskatchewan, Missouri and Assiniboine-Red area. Flows in the South Saskatchewan are fully allocated and predictions of glacial retreat and reduced winter snow coverage due to global warming may significantly impact a river system that relies on glacial and snow melt for most of its summer flows. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/manage/use/e_ratio.htm Canada Environment] ]

Municipal water supply accounts for 12% of water use in Canada. The other main water users are cooling water for power generation (64%), manufacturing (14%) and agriculture (9%). [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/images/manage/effic/a6f1e.htm Environment Canada] ]

Water use

Residential consumers in Canada used 343 litres per person per day, or roughly twice as much per person as in other industrialized countries, with the exception of the United States. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/info/pubs/sss/e_price99.htm Environment Canada] ]

According to the Federal Environment Department the following sectors account for the following shares of municipal water use:

*52% residential users
*19% commercial users
*16% industrial users
*13% leakage. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/images/manage/effic/a6f2e.htm Environment Canada] ]

However, a different part of the same web site of Environment Canada states that leakage losses are actually much higher at “up to 30%”. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/manage/effic/e_leak.htm Environment Canada] ]

See also: Non-revenue water


The [http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/water-eau/drink-potab/guide/index_e.html Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality of 1968] set guidelines for drinking water quality standards in Canada, developed by Health Canada with the provincial and territorial governments and setting out the maximum acceptable concentrations of these substances in drinking water. The drinking water guidelines are designed to protect the health of the most vulnerable members of society, such as children and the elderly. The guidelines set out the basic parameters that every water system should strive to achieve in order to provide the cleanest, safest and most reliable drinking water possible. [ [http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/water-eau/drink-potab/guide/index_e.html Health Canada] ]

Three Canadian provinces require all public water supplies to be disinfected, while other provinces require disinfection only for surface water supplies. [ [http://www.cwwa.ca/faqmunicipal_e.asp CWWA] ]

Responsibility for water supply and sanitation

While the responsibility for water supply and sanitation in Canada lies with municipalities, the provincial governments and the federal government also have important responsibilities related to the setting of standards, research, economic regulation and water resources management. As all levels of government hold key policy and regulatory levers which apply to water and sanitation, a central challenge is to ensure that these levers are developed and used collaboratively. The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment - which consists of the 14 environment ministers from the federal, provincial and territorial governments - plays an important role in the development of national strategies, norms and guidelines for water supply and sanitation. [ [http://www.ccme.ca/about/ Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment] ]

The need and the difficulty to collaborate between different levels of government is apparent in the discussion of a proposed national municipal wastewater effluents strategy. According to the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association "Canada faces a variety of provincial and territorial approaches (to wastewater and biosolids) that are not consistent with federal legislation, and we have no structure to have a rational science-based discussion of the policies and regulatory requirements that would enable us to identify and promote the beneficial use of these environmental resources." [ T. Duncan Ellison, Executive Director, CWWA, IWA Yearbook 2008, p. 22 ]

Policy and regulation

Provinces and territories

The governing of drinking water and sanitation in Canada falls under provincial/territorial jurisdiction.The provinces and territories are responsible for developing and enforcing all legislation pertaining to municipal and public water supplies including their construction and operation. [ [http://www.cwwa.ca/faqmunicipal_e.asp CWWA] ]

Each province also has a public utility commission or board for the economic regulation of utilities. In many, but not in all provinces, these bodies also regulate tariffs and service quality of water and sewer utilities. [ For a list of regulatory commission see [http://www.camput.org/pub_members.html CAMPUT] ]

Under the Constitution Act, 1867, the provinces are "owners" of the water resources and have wide responsibilities in their day-to-day management. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/policy/federal/e_backg.htm Environment Canada] ] Each province has its own legislation related to water resources, water supply and the environment.

The Federal Government

The federal government has certain specific responsibilities relating to water, such as fisheries and navigation, as well as exercising certain overall responsibilities such as the conduct of external affairs. Within the federal government, over 20 departments and agencies have responsibilities for freshwater. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/policy/federal/e_intro.htm Environment Canada] ] The 1987 Federal Water Policy, which remains valid today, has two main goals with respect to water: To protect and enhance the quality of the water resource and to promote the wise and efficient management and use of water. The Canada Water Act (proclaimed on September 30, 1970) provides the framework for cooperation with provinces and territories in the conservation, development, and utilization of Canada's water resources. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, completes the framework for the protection and of water resources. Environment Canada is the federal department (Ministry) in charge of conserving and protecting Canada's water resources. Health Canada is the federal department in charge of protecting the health of all Canadians by developing the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality in partnership with the provinces and territories.

Service provision

Service provision is the responsibility of municipalities. A few municipalities have delegated service provision to private companies or to public companies owned by Provinces.

For example, the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), a Crown agency of the Province of Ontario, provides operation, maintenance and management services for more than 450 water and wastewater treatment facilities in the province on behalf of about 200 Ontario municipalities. ["Key Ontario water agency listed up for grabs despite government denials," "Canadian Press NewsWire", June 8 2000]

Overall there are approximately 9,000 public water and sanitation systems in the country. These include about 2,500 municipally owned water and sewer utilities in urban areas and approximately 6,500 small privately owned and operated systems providing public services in or at trailer parks and recreational facilities such as camp grounds, golf courses and ski facilities, etc.

Human resources Some 300,000 Canadians were directly employed in the operation of these municipal services in the late 1990s, and although statistics are not available for those employed in the private supplier sector, it is likely to be to the same order. [ [http://www.bvsde.ops-oms.org/frwww/eva2000/Canada/informe/inf-07.htm WHO] ]

Business associations The Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA), established in 1986, is a non-profit national body representing the common interests of Canada’s public sector municipal water and wastewater services and their private sector suppliers and partners. CWWA is recognized by the federal government and national bodies as the national voice of this public service sector. [ [http://www.cwwa.ca/home_e.asp CWWA] ]

Tariffs and cost recovery

Tariff structure

In 1999, 44% of Canadian residences served by municipal water systems were not metered. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/info/pubs/sss/e_price99.htm Environment Canada] ] A 2001 study of rate structures by Environment Canada showed that in 1999, 43 percent of the population was under a flat rate structure where the charge or assessment is fixed, regardless of the amount of water used. Another 12 percent were under a declining block rate structure (where the consumer's bill rises at a slower rate as higher volumes of water are used); i.e., the more you use, the less you pay per unit. Thus 55% of Canadians faced residential water use charges that discouraged water conservation. Water use was 70% higher when consumers face flat monthly rates rather than volume-based rates.

Only about 45 percent of the population served was found to be under a rate structure that provided an incentive to conserve water: 36 percent were under a constant rate structure (where the bill to the consumer climbs uniformly with the volume used); and 9 percent were under an increasing block rate structure (where a successively higher price is changed as larger volumes of water are used). [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/manage/effic/e_rates.htm Environment Canada] ]

Tariff level

The price Canadians pay for water varies significantly across the country. Analysis of the 1999 Municipal Water Pricing Survey prepared in 2001 indicates that the average domestic water user (assuming 25 000 litres per month) pays CAN$1.14 for 1000 litres. This value has increased substantially in recent years from about 82 cents per 1000 litres in 1991, and nationally, now includes a waste treatment component of about 39%. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/manage/use/e_price.htm Environment Canada] ] The Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey covered over 1200 Canadian municipalities.. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/manage/use/e_data.htm Environment Canada] ]

[http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/manage/use/e_mun.htm Full list of water and sewer rates in Canada by municipality]

Cost recovery

According to the 1987 federal water policy the federal government is committed to the concept of "a fair value for water." To implement this concept in federal policies, programs and initiatives, the federal government has committed, among other things, to endorse the concept of realistic pricing as a direct means of controlling demand and generating revenues to cover costs. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/info/pubs/fedpol/e_fedpol.htm#5.1 1987 Federal Water Policy] ]

Nevertheless, in 1999 only 50% of the cost of maintaining and operating water infrastructure was actually being met through cost recovery from users of the systems. [ [http://www.ec.gc.ca/water/en/info/pubs/sss/e_price99.htm Environment Canada] ]

Investment and financing

According to the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, unmet water and wastewater infrastructure needs in Canada were CAN$38-49 billion in 1996, and capital costs for the following 20 years would be in the order of CAN$70-90 billion.

It was estimated that in the late 1990s the total annual operating cost of water and sanitation services were greater than US $2.75 billions while the revenue generated from user fees is to the order of US $ 2.1 billions. The difference is made up from general municipal revenues (e.g., property taxes or subsidies from senior levels of government). [ [http://www.bvsde.ops-oms.org/frwww/eva2000/Canada/informe/inf-07.htm WHO] ]

The greatest portion of investment in water and sanitation infrastructure and services has been financed by municipal governments from revenues derived from general property taxes or from water and sanitation charges which are increasingly moving to the state of full cost pricing. All Provinces and Territories provide funds via transfers to the municipal governments in their jurisdictions. The federal contribution, while significant in absolute terms (for example, in the period 1993 to 1998 the amount was in excess of US $1.4 billion), represents only a small proportion of total public investments in municipal infrastructure. [ [http://www.bvsde.ops-oms.org/frwww/eva2000/Canada/informe/inf-01.htm WHO] ]

External links

* [http://www.ec.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=FD9B0E51-1 Environment Canada]
* [http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/index_e.html Health Canada]
* [http://www.cwwa.ca/home_e.asp Canadian Water and Wastewater Association CWWA]


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