This week, when we learned that three truckloads of radioactive biosolids from Ottawa had been stopped at the U.S. border, Dixon Weir, the city’s water and sewage director, was quick to assure us there was no contamination of the drinking water.
Few things, after all, are as fundamental to a community as the water supply, and the poisoned well is an ancient fear. Drinking a glass of tap water is an act of faith in one’s government.
Ask the people of Walkerton, where seven people died of E. coli poisoning in 2000, or Shannon, Que., where they’re suing the federal government after trichloroethylene, a carcinogen, leached into the water table from nearby CFB Valcartier. Or numerous First Nations reserves where boil water advisories are the norm rather than the exception.
The drinking water is good in Ottawa, but our faith can be tested, as it was when the city was fined $562,500 last fall for accidentally spewing almost a billion litres of raw sewage into the Ottawa River and then failing to report it.
The older parts of our sewers are used for both sewage and storm drainage, and a stuck overflow gate was all it took to cause the discharge. Separate systems might cost $600 million, and the city’s shopping list to fix leaky water infrastructure is already lengthy.
Thousands of Ottawa homes still get their water through potentially toxic lead pipes, although the city is slowly replacing these. And three years ago, city staff reported that our water system leaks so much that almost a fifth of our drinkable water is wasted, 63 million litres a day.
And then there are antique water pipes like the one that burst under Rideau Street, near King Edward last May, shutting down the busy intersection. The cast iron pipe had been installed in 1885, when Sir John A. Macdonald, that great promoter of national infrastructure (if intermittent drinker of water), was still prime minister.
Ottawa’s infrastructure, like that of many Canadian cities, has been neglected for decades, and one estimate puts repairs and replacements a billion dollars in arrears.
When the federal government signalled its intent to pony up for refurbishments in the budget, the City of Ottawa was ready with, among other ready-to-roll projects, $5.2 million in water and sewer work. It’s just a drop in the bailing bucket, but it’s a start, and one to be toasted with a glass of Ottawa’s best.
– Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa.