Ontario Water Report
Could Lead To Privatization And Loss Of Local Accountability
TORONTO – The Ontario Municipal Water Association (OMWA) is warning Queen’s Park that proposals to create a provincial Water Board, as well as establish local water companies across the province, could ultimately lead to the privatization of Ontario’s publicly-owned water infrastructure.
"The private sector could end up owning our water systems if the provincial government adopts these misguided recommendations," said Rosemary Kelleher-MacLennan, Chair of the OMWA, at the association’s annual meeting today. "We’re calling on Queen’s Park to reject these proposals and to enshrine in legislation the fundamental principle that the province’s water systems are to remain publicly owned."
The OMWA was responding to a report by the Water Strategy Expert Panel, established by the provincial government, which has made recommendations to David Caplan, Minister of Public Infrastructure Renewal. The OMWA’s members serve the water needs of more than 80 per cent of the population of Ontario.
The report, titled Watertight: The Case for Change in Ontario’s Water and Wastewater Sector, recommends rationalizing the system by requiring counties, single-tier municipalities, and regional municipalities to submit plans to a proposed Ontario Water Board on how they will amalgamate water systems within their boundaries (and even beyond) to achieve greater cost-efficiencies. The Water Board would have the authority to approve or require changes to these plans.
"This would result in control of water assets being transferred from municipalities to so-called `corporatized utilities’, and we see that as opening the way to dismantling public ownership," Kelleher-MacLennan stated. "Ultimately, our water systems could end up in the hands of private interests."
The Watertight report itself makes the statement that there is nothing inherently wrong with private-sector ownership of water systems. ‘There is no necessary connection between ownership and performance,’ the report states. ‘Whether the assets are publicly or privately owned, it is the details of management and operations that dictate excellence.’ (Page 33 of the report.)
The OMWA also views the Ontario Water Board as an unnecessary and heavy-handed intrusion by the province into municipal decision-making. "It’s the local ratepayers who are affected by the organization and financing of these water assets, and that’s why local accountability should be preserved," said Kelleher-MacLennan. "It will add a costly and unwanted level of bureaucracy that will have to be paid by local residents. Why should these decisions be made in Toronto?"
Another concern is that the proposed Water Board would further fragment responsibility for water issues – exactly the kind of fragmentation that the Walkerton Inquiry warned against – causing uncertainty and confusion. In fact, the report even suggests that the Water Board could take over the inspection function of the Ministry of the Environment.
"Water is too important a resource to become a political football in a power struggle between competing ministries, agencies and jurisdictions," said Kelleher-MacLennan. "We feel that the Ministry of the Environment should be the lead on all water-related issues."
The OMWA agrees with the report that water systems should be operated on a full-cost recovery basis so that they are able to make the necessary investment in infrastructure and maintain and operate their assets over the long term. However, the association disagrees with the report’s ‘solution’ and is strongly opposed to top-down provincial regulatory control.
The OMWA maintains the Sustainable Water and Sewage Systems Act would accomplish the same goal of creating larger and more efficient water system units, but would do so by allowing municipalities to make their own decisions based on full-cost recovery planning. The province needs to begin by passing regulations under the Act and to work with the public water supply sector to develop the best mechanisms for change.
"This is a far more sensible and sensitive way to increase scale and capacity in the sector. It is permissive rather than prescriptive. It recognizes that every water system in the province is unique. A one-size-fits-all approach simply will not work," said Douglas Parker, Executive Director of the OMWA.
"We call on the Minister of Environment to work with us as we did on Walkerton to find solutions that best meet the needs of the residents of Ontario and the need to invest in infrastructure," added Parker.
The OMWA is an association of 200 municipal water providers, their elected officials and senior management, which serve more than seven million water consumers in the province.
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