Municipal Water Supply Infrastructure Governance in Canada:

Uptake of water conservation technologies in the context of utility restructuring.

Background

Municipal supply governance in Canada has been undergoing dramatic change over the past decade. There are several factors driving changes in water supply governance at the municipal level in Canada. The Walkerton water quality tragedy and the results of the subsequent Walkerton Inquiry provided an impetus for the revision of drinking water legislation, monitoring and enforcement provisions in several provinces (e.g. British Columbia, Ontario). Fiscal constraints and political-economic restructuring in Canada’s provinces have also led to changes, including: provincial-to-municipal devolution of fiscal responsibilities for public service provision; a shift in the ownership of infrastructure from higher levels of government to municipalities; increasing use of the private sector to support the provision of public services; and funding and employment cutbacks to the public sector including environmental ministries. These pressures are compounded by a series of inter-related challenges, including aging infrastructure, limited resources for infrastructure renewal, and new environmental and social pressures stemming from heightened awareness of the links between poor water quality and public and environmental health.

Indeed, the operation of municipal water supply systems is complex. These operations must fulfill many, sometimes competing functions. Protecting public health, meeting industrial, commercial and residential demand; and maintaining environmental quality are among the goals requiring the attendance of water supply managers on a daily basis. Balancing these goals has become increasingly difficult in many communities for the reasons detailed above. Often, municipalities have found themselves ill-equipped to meet this emerging set of challenges.

In response, many Canadian municipalities have adopted new models for water governance. This transition in Canadian water governance at the municipal scale has been rapid and has yielded a wide array of new and distinctive models for water governance nationwide. The range of new governance models adopted by municipalities includes a variety of public-private partnerships (P3s), municipal corporations, and hybrid models involving corporations, public commissions, and delegated management (Bakker & Cameron, 2002). Simultaneously, some municipalities are experimenting with new water conservation technologies.

Table 1: Governance models for water supply infrastructure in Canada
Examples of Governance Models
Municipal Department: Most Canadian municipalities
Municipal Business Unit: Toronto (ON)
Municipal Board or Commission: Peterborough (ON)
Co-operative: Rural Alberta, Quebec, and Manitoba
Provincial Crown Corporation: SaskWater (SK)
Corporatized Municipal Utility: Edmonton (AB), Kingston (ON)
Delegated Management (public operator): Peel (ON)
Delegated management (private operator): Moncton (NB)
Direct Private Utility: White Rock (BC)

Source: Adapted from Bakker and Cameron (2005)

Understanding how water supply management is simultaneously affected by trends in governance and infrastructure that mutually influence one another is crucial to improving the sustainability of water supply management in Canada. For example, water supply management capability may be influenced by governance reforms affecting staffing levels, as well as by technological innovations introducing greater automation and complexity into operational management. Another example is the integration of municipality networks, which may be driven both by governance changes (municipal amalgamation) and infrastructural drivers (inability to meet large capital costs).

Improving the sustainability of water supply management thus requires attention to both infrastructural improvements and governance reform. In response to the Walkerton tragedy and the ensuing public inquiry , for example, more stringent standards for drinking water quality have been adopted in Ontario. Meeting these standards requires new infrastructural investments, whose sustainability rests in part on governance innovations – improved transparency and accountability, and new pricing and accounting mechanisms.

Project status:
This project is now concluded
For more information about this program, please contact:
Kathryn Furlong