Last week, Metro reported the City of Calgary is considering a third-party provider for regional water delivery. A private company would invest in infrastructure such as pipes and water treatment plants and the public would pay the city or the private company to have clean water delivered to its houses.

As the water infrastructure decays and municipalities are increasingly strapped for cash for repair, privatization is being, or has been, considered in many cities across the country.

We Canadians love our water. And we use a lot. Between 1972 and 1996, Canada’s rate of water consumption increased by almost 90 per cent, to 45 billion cubic metres per year from 24 billion cubic metres per year. But our population increased by only 33.6 per cent over the same period.

Although it would seem that we live in a land with plenty of water, water conservation is important. We withdraw water from ground or surface water, we use it, and we discharge it, but the quality of the water we discharge is often not as good as the quality of water we withdraw (depending on how it was used and treated). We have contaminated some ground and surface water sources to the point where we no longer want to withdraw water from them.

So, it would seem that decreasing water use should decrease the discharge of pollutants. Privatization of water delivery systems would likely result in our water bills being linked to consumption of water, which is currently true for barely half of Canadians. Many still pay a flat rate for water delivery. A 1999 study showed water use was 70 per cent higher when consumers paid a flat rate for water. Privatization could, then, improve conservation efforts through the cheapskate principle (we conserve for the sake of our wallets, rather than the sake of our resources).

However, can we count on private companies to safeguard the integrity of our lakes and rivers by being vigilant about the quality of the water they discharge? The city of Hamilton privatized its water supply in the early ’90s, and throughout the decade the city was plagued by discharges of sewage to basements across the city and to Lake Ontario. Although never proven, these discharges were blamed by many on the privatization of the water plants.

Discharges of sewage to our waterways led to a dramatic decline in water quality. The high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus contained in sewage can lead to algal blooms, which, together with bacteria that degrade the carbon-based portion of the sewage, lead to oxygen concentrations in the water becoming depleted, which leads to the death of fish and other aquatic life. Also, direct sewage discharge can introduce pathogens to our water, such as E. coli, and contaminants such as metals, which can be transmitted either by direct ingestion of water or by consuming fish from contaminated water bodies.

Discharges of sewage do not only occur when private companies are at the helm, however. So, whoever is in charge of delivering and cleaning our water as we move forward will need to meet stringent guidelines and maintain strict controls over discharge, as well as promoting water conservation so we can maintain the privilege of ample clean water.

– Sophia Dore is an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates. Andrew Laursen is an assistant professor at Ryerson University.