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Wastewater management a work in progress for Ontario municipalities

A birds-eye view of a water filtration plant in suburban Toronto

Kernaghan Webb and his student Edgar Tovilla are reviewing how wastewater management systems are managed in the province of Ontario.

Ontario municipalities have adopted a patchwork of regulated standards for the management of drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater according to research currently being conducted under the supervision of Kernaghan Webb in Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.

Drawing on the standards of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Kernaghan Webb and his PhD student Edgar Tovilla have been looking at how federal, provincial and municipal governments are variously addressing municipal water regulation.

“What we are seeing is an interesting convergence taking place,” said Kernaghan. “The rules being applied by municipalities represent a blend of rules from the province, federal government, and the private sector.”

Through a Mitacs Accelerate grant in partnership with SAI Global, a risk assessment and management firm, Webb and Tovilla are examining how and why the governance of water management systems is evolving.

Following the tragedy in Walkerton, where a number of illnesses and deaths were attributed to poor management of drinking water, the province implemented new water management standards to bring municipalities in line with industry standards for quality management and food production to ensure clean drinking water. This initiative has combined the ISO standard for quality management, known as ISO 9001, and the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) for the food industry to establish the Drinking Water Quality Management System (DWQMS) for drinking water in Ontario.

In their research, Webb and Tovilla have seen that while the province expects drinking water quality to be within specific management guidelines, the management of wastewater and stormwater is not specifically spelled out. Despite this lack of provincial enforcement, Tovilla has identified a small number of municipalities that are not only taking on ISO standards for drinking water but also the ISO standards for environmental management of wastewater and stormwater, known as ISO 14001. What is particularly noteworthy is that those municipalities implementing ISO standards for wastewater are some of the most densely populated in Ontario, including the City of Toronto as well as York, Durham, Peel, and Halton Regions.

“What has transpired over the last ten years is the adoption of non-state standards for wastewater management,” said Tovilla. “We are looking at the role of ISO standards and what externalities are affecting the decisions of municipalities to improve these systems.” He noted that external pressures such as court decisions can be a catalyst for change, as judges have been favouring “creative sentencing” by requiring the adoption of ISO standards in their judgements for environmental violations. “We are seeing a departure from what is the minimum requirements of the province and what the municipalities are proactively adopting and using,” said Tovilla.

Tovilla is a civil engineer who works in wastewater management for the Region of Peel. His experience gives him a unique perspective on the problem. “I have been able to see firsthand the benefit of the DWQMS and the fact that municipalities have been cross-training on many different levels, bringing benefits from one sector to another sector,” said Tovilla. Adherence to such standards may decrease the likelihood of environmental violations taking place. When violations do occur, those municipalities that have implemented ISO 14001 may be able to raise a due diligence defence.

Webb says this work sheds light on new methods of governance that are emerging in light of increasingly complex issues we face as a society. He refers to the emerging approach as “sustainable governance.”

“In order to address the complex environmental, social, and economic problems that we face in the 21st century, it’s not possible to rely exclusively on government, the private sector, or civil society,” said Webb. “But each component has important contributions to make to the overall effective regulation of water protection and Edgar’s work is really an illustration of that.”