BC leadership ‘waned’ on water protection, auditor general warns

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British Columbia’s Ministry of Health and its Provincial Health Officer are not taking the actions needed to protect or adequately report on drinking water for all British Columbians, a new report from B.C.’s auditor general has found.

The Protection of Drinking Water: An Independent Audit, released in July, notes that oversight of drinking water is very complex, involving 23 pieces of legislation and many ministries and agencies. However, “over time, [Ministry of] Health’s leadership has waned”, and accountability has dipped along with it, as officials fail to show the tracking and resolution of significant impediments to ensure water protection is at its highest level, said the report.

“As a result, most coordinating bodies have disbanded, there is no strategic plan to guide the direction of drinking water protection, and efforts to protect small water systems have been limited,” Carol Bellringer, B.C.’s Auditor General, stated in the report. “Health has undertaken some action but more needs to be done.”

B.C. has more than 4,400 small drinking water systems that serve approximately 480,000 British Columbians.

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While Bellringer stated in the report that B.C. hasn’t had an outbreak of a waterborne illness since 2004, “constant vigilance is needed,” she said, adding that for every reported case of illness, hundreds may go unreported.

In 2002, in its Action Plan for Safe Drinking Water in British Columbia, health officials aimed to provide safe, reliable and accessible drinking water for all people in British Columbia, from source to tap. But Bellringer wrote that it’s been challenging for the government to achieve its commitments as outlined in the action plan, noting that it has failed to provide an adequate drinking water protection strategy or a strategy for small water systems where risks to drinking water are particularly high.

While the Ministry of Health had also created treatment objectives for both groundwater- and surface water-supplied systems, the ministry had not determined how many systems are out of compliance with these objectives, and therefore had not identified high-risk treatment facilities, the report found.

For drinking water distribution, the report found that the ministry had provided guidance on both the need for residual chlorine to keep the water safe when it arrives at the tap, as well as guidelines for mitigating lead leaching. However, the ministry had not determined if health authorities were following the guidance for chlorine, and their lead leaching guidance “was too new for us to have evaluated whether it was being implemented,” Bellringer wrote.

In response to the auditor general’s comments, the Ministry of Health wrote that, “the OAG (Office of the Attorney General) report documents some of the changes in roles and responsibilities of agencies that have occurred since the adoption of the Action Plan in 2002. There was a significant change in leadership responsibilities for MoH in the drinking water system between 2002 and 2013.”

The Provincial Health Officer (PHO) is legislated to provide an annual report to the Minister of Health on actions taken in the past year under the Drinking Water Protection Act, “but this reporting has occurred infrequently,” wrote Bellringer. In June 2019, the officer provided its report for the years 2012 to 2017 and made 32 recommendations. However, many of those from previous reports have seen “limited or no progress,” the report found.

“The Act also allows the PHO to recommend a drinking water protection plan to ensure source watersheds are protected,” states the report. “We found that this tool has not been used in the 16 years since the Act was amended.”

The PHO told the auditor general that challenges have arisen from staffing resource limitations and difficulties in collecting data in a timely manner from external ministries and the regional health authorities.

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