Luckily, there hasn’t been any major bacteria outbreaks in this province yet because the 85 municipal systems that provide drinking water to roughly 60 per cent of Nova Scotians are tested for bacteria almost daily.
But for the 1,600 smaller water supply locations, like Kids & Company, inspectors aren’t keeping up with audits and inspections that are designed to prevent a tragedy like the one that hit Walkerton, Ontario in May 2000.
Seven people died and almost half of Walkerton’s 5,000 people got sick after drinking water with a deadly bacteria, called E. coli. It got into the local water system through a government-owned well that was contaminated by the effluent from a nearby farm.
Investigators found a lot of the illnesses could have been prevented, if government inspectors had monitored the bacteria count every day as required.
The tragedy prompted the Nova Scotia government to tighten regulations on both the municipal and the what used to be “private” public drinking water supplies.
Between October 2000 and August 2002, more than a thousand schools, restaurants, campgrounds and other types of non-municipal drinking water systems that serve more than 25 people per day for at least 60 days of the year got registered with the department. Most of these facilities rely on groundwater – drilled wells or dug wells – as the water source.
At the same time, the revised regulations following the Walkerton tragedy gave owners of these registered water supplies the responsibility to test their well water for two bacteria, including E. coli, every three months. Water samples are sent to one of the labs certified by the department to get analyzed. Meanwhile, the Environment Department audit the facilities every three years to check the well and test the water to make sure it meets Health Canada’s safe drinking water standards.
However, these small systems are tested way less frequently compared to municipal ones. And the credibility of water testing is compromised when owners are responsible to test their own water, while inspectors only audit the results once every three years. The audit process is not a good way to discover problems that may contribute to future outbreaks.