TORONTO - Ontario may consider a rating system for water conservation similar to the Energy Star program now used for electricity as part of a push to cash in on clean-water technology.

The province is considering putting in place a program that would ensure toilets, faucets and water-consuming appliances are rated by their efficiency, much like the Energy Star program does with household machines such as refrigerators.

"It would be a great benefit to consumers to purchase those products which conserve the greatest amount of water," said Environment Minister John Gerretsen.

"We use the greatest amount of water, on a per capita basis, than anywhere in the world."

The changes could come as early as this spring when the Liberals introduce their Water Opportunities Act, touted in this week's throne speech as a way to help the province cash in on the $400-billion-a-year global demand for clean-water technology.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said that while people in the province understand the need to reduce electricity usage, they're not as knowledgeable about ways to conserve water.

"Where we need to go now is to come to understand the same opportunities exist when it comes to our water usage, and not just the amount of water we use in our homes, but throughout the processes we use in our businesses as well," McGuinty said.

"There are tremendous opportunities there, that's one of those that we want to exploit through our clean water and technology services plan."

New Democrat critic Peter Tabuns said the push toward a water conservation system wasn't a bad idea, just "a small one."

"We need regulation to set Energy Star as the base standard for efficiency for water appliances," Tabuns said.

"We need investment on a large scale in water conservation in all public buildings, in all publicly owned assets and financing programs in place for people who make their homes and their businesses more water efficient."

Gerretsen declined to explain how or if the province would mitigate costs for consumers if they're forced to buy more expensive energy efficient appliances, saying that "remains to be seen."

But Tabuns said one way to offset costs would be to encourage mass production of the appliances. He noted Energy Star-rated fridges aren't more expensive now than the old ones were in the 1980s, since manufacturers have changed the way they make those appliances.

The Liberals' latest musings come amid opposition criticism that the province shouldn't be talking about selling conservation and treatment technology overseas when many Ontario communities remain under boil water advisories.

In 2008, Ontario had 679 boil-water advisories - more than any other province or territory.

Some have been in place for years, the NDP said.

The premier admitted the province could be doing a better job cleaning up its own water, but said he has no plans to appoint a clean water or water conservation czar.

McGuinty also denied the sudden focus on water is a ploy to embarrass the Conservatives in next year's election over the tainted water tragedy in Walkerton 10 years ago - even though his finance minister brought up the scandal almost immediately following the throne speech.

"That was a very painful experience for an Ontario community and I'd like to think that we've gone a long way together as a province to move beyond that, get that behind us, draw what lessons we should from that experience," said McGuinty.

"Now we're talking about global opportunities for clean water technologies and services."

The Walkerton crisis left seven people dead and thousands ill after the town's water supply became polluted with E. coli bacteria in 2000.

A public inquiry placed part of the blame on cutbacks in water testing, as the Tories under former premier Mike Harris cut some $200 million in funding between 1995 and 1997 and slashed staff by 750.

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