Auditor general says Manitoba needs to do more to ensure safe water

·7 min read

An investigation by Manitoba’s Auditor General Tyson Shtykalo, found that the province’s Department of Conservation and Climate needs to be doing more to ensure the safety of drinking water in Manitoba. The entirety of the auditor general’s findings are in the report, Provincial Oversight of Drinking Water Safety.

The audit found the department’s processes for licensing and monitoring drinking water systems did not adequately address safety risks. The audit also found the department had weak strategic planning and performance measurement processes for overseeing drinking water safety.

“The people and organizations that supply drinking water to Manitobans must ensure that water is safe to drink,” Shtykalo said. “While Manitoba has not had any major outbreaks of waterborne diseases recently, the department needs to remain vigilant and do more to minimize the risk of problems in the future.”

Shtykalo found that 20 per cent of known water systems in Manitoba didn’t have an operating license. A licence outlines what a system operator must do to meet regulatory requirements, including the water quality standards they must meet and the frequency of testing required. Most of these unlicensed systems were testing drinking water, but not at the expected frequency.

“There were definitely some concerning findings in our report,” he said. “The fact that there were water systems identified but not licensed—many hadn’t been for several years—is concerning. The time it took for systems to be licensed and the number of expired licenses was certainly troubling.

“We looked at licensing, monitoring, and performance planning, and on the monitoring side we had several issues with their monitoring process and following up adverse tests.

“That compounded with the lack of automation and any kind of robust IT system to assist them in their monitoring is concerning.

“Finally, one of the more concerning findings is how far the department has fallen back on operator certification,” he said. “Several systems are operating out there without a certified operator.”

Although there’s yet to be any issues from the water systems operating without licenses, Shtykalo says it increases risk to the consumers if water systems aren’t correctly following all regulations.

“It’s hard to say for sure,” he said. “Risk is always increased when the appropriate controls and processes aren’t in place.

“The gaps identified during our audit show there’s an ongoing vigilance that’s necessary to make sure that the water provided to Manitobans is safe. I think our recommendations in the report will only help to improve the safety of drinking water and ensure that the safety is maintained.”

The audit consisted of checking every public and semi-public water system overseen by the department in Manitoba, which means vastly different situations from system to system, Shtykalo said.

“The first thing to put things into perspective, what we looked at was the water systems that are under the responsibility of the department,” he said. “When we talk about water systems, we explain in our report, we’re looking for what are called public water systems and semi-public water systems.

“This pretty much runs the gamut for the water systems—from the city of Winnipeg’s water system, which is enormous, to the smaller semi-public water systems, which could just be a seasonal water system operating in a campground, to several smaller water systems in northern communities.

“Another example would be if you have a restaurant that’s hooked up to its own private well, because they’re serving the public, it’s called a semi-public water system and would be covered under this.”

In recent years the department has been identifying more water systems throughout the province which has, in part, led to more unlicensed systems says Shtykalo.

“What happened was, several years ago the department realized that there were a lot of these unidentified semi-public systems,” he said. “They put quite an effort into identifying them. Once they were identified, they were left with quite a backlog of systems that weren’t licensed. The thing about the licenses are that they’re operating licenses and they set out the rules that the public system needs to be operating under—the types of testing, the frequency of testing, the reporting requirements back to the department.

“Without these operating licenses actually laying out all the testing requirements what we saw was a lot of them doing more ad hoc sampling, but perhaps not with the frequency and type of testing necessary.”

Shtykalo says an estimated half of known water systems in the province did not have a certified operator.

“Although many of these systems were very small, it is important that all water systems, no matter the size, have an operator who has received appropriate training and understands the system and safety requirements,” he said.

The audit found the number of licensed drinking water systems in Manitoba nearly doubled over five years, but the number of staff assigned to license and monitor these systems decreased.

It also found more work was required to bring non-compliant water systems into compliance with provincial regulations, the report says.

“What’s required of the department is to license and monitor on an ongoing basis these public and semi-public water systems,” he said.

“We did identify that there was an increased number of these identified systems and their staffing did go down, but it’s up to the department to handle that and that’s where we think a strong strategic planning process is necessary.

“That way the department operates in some areas on a more risk-based process and implements some IT systems and automated systems so they’re getting more better information quicker and they’re able to use that information to assist them in their monitoring and following up on adverse tests.

“There’s different things the department can do, but the responsibility lies with the department to ensure that they’re meeting their mandate.”

It’s the departments responsibility to ensure these water systems are following regulations, but Shtykalo doesn’t believe it’s negligence and says with the recommendations from the audit the department will be able to get back on track and improve their processes.

“I think the reason that there are more water systems being identified is because they were doing their job and making a large effort to identify them,” he said. “There are a few things that might complicate the process. For example, we put in our report that some of these semi-public systems are rather unique. They may be a water system in a hunting lodge far up north or a cottage water co-op that’s providing water that’s not even meant to be consumed.

“They don’t have specific operating licenses for those unique types of systems. One of our recommendations is that the department put a priority in developing policy and regulations so that they can license these. The department to their credit is working towards this and we’re hoping the recommendations we’re making will help them expedite that process.”

Shtykalo said the department did not have a clear, robust plan to address the many risks to drinking water safety and that the most important thing going forward is for them to implement a strategic plan.

“Given the limited resources available, and increasing workload, it is important that the department carefully plan how to address the issues noted in this report,” he said.

“I feel some of our recommendations will help them achieve that and help them implement. We have a couple recommendations where we make reference to implementing more automated or IT based systems.

“Recommendation 17 is, ‘we recommend that the department develop a strategic plan for its oversight of drinking water safety, that includes measurable targets and timelines, the department should report publicly on meeting this objective.’

“While all our recommendations are important, that certainly is the key one,” he said.

Rob Paul, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The World-Spectator