walkerton signTwenty years ago this month, an e-coli outbreak tore through the small town of Walkerton, sickening thousands and jolting Ontario out of its complacency regarding clean drinking water. Before then, water was considered a basic human right, taken for granted in affluent countries such as ours.

The town, and the tragedy, are well-known -- a modern day parable showing what can happen when legislation regarding the protection of clean water is lacking, oversight is slack, funding is insufficient, operators are poorly trained, and accountability is not enforced.

What’s not well known is how Walkerton is now at the forefront of excellence in drinking water protection, through the Walkerton Clean Water Centre.

Since opening in 2004 the centre has trained about 95,000 people, from water system owners, operators and authorities to the general public. It develops new treatment technologies, primarily for small and vulnerable systems, with a mandate to ensure clean and safe drinking water for the entire province, including First Nations communities.

“The name Walkerton is now associated with progress in drinking water,” said retired Justice Dennis O’Connor, who presided over the 9-month Walkerton Inquiry following the e-coli tragedy. His final report included dozens of recommendations to safeguard Ontario’s drinking water and prevent future disasters. It led to the development of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act, and it kick-started the initiative to build a training centre to address deficiencies in water management throughout the province.

O’Connor and his wife lived in Walkerton during the inquiry, and developed a strong connection with the community, returning each spring for many years to paddle the Saugeen River. “It was a tragic time but I have fond memories of the people of Walkerton, and felt I was doing something important,” he said in a recent interview.

Most of O’Connor’s recommendations from the inquiry have been adopted in Ontario, and have provided a framework for many other jurisdictions as well. The retired judge was looking forward to attending a commemoration event planned for Walkerton this May to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.

He’s toured the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, and says its location is not a coincidence. “Part of the aim was to make Walkerton a centre of water excellence.”

Steve Hrudey, a renowned expert on drinking water, says Walkerton has earned that moniker.

“The Walkerton Clean Water Centre may be the single most important legacy of the May 2000 disaster,” Hrudey said last week.

Hrudey is one of the foremost authorities on municipal water systems and travels the world holding workshops for water treatment professionals. The author of “Ensuring Safe Drinking Water – Learning from Front-line Experience,” Hrudey is a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to environmental health sciences and for his advocacy of safe drinking water.

The toxicologist and professor emeritus from the University of Alberta sat on the Walkerton Inquiry and has studied waterborne outbreaks around the world.

“Ontario should be promoting the success story of the WCWC and Walkerton should be very proud of this initiative,” he said.

There is no room for complacency, he added. Since the Walkerton tragedy, at least 24 other cases of waterborne illnesses in affluent countries such as Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Germany have been recorded.

Many were similar to Walkerton’s. All were preventable.

“I firmly believe that it is extremely unlikely that water operators will want to harm their consumers, they only do so if they are allowed to be ignorant of their responsibilities and are not supported to do the necessary operations well. Ultimately, consumers have to care enough to support effective investment in systems that will ensure safe drinking water,” Hrudey said in an email.

The Walkerton Clean Water Centre “is a great initiative which has accomplished a lot of what is important,” he said.

Dr. Karen Weaver, the former mayor of Flint, Mich., which is facing its own ongoing water crisis, visited the WCWC recently and was moved to tears, saying she wished her community had a similar facility.

While visiting, she met briefly with the mayor of Brockton, where Walkerton is located.

“We are proud to have the Walkerton Clean Water Centre in our own backyard training thousands of people each year and bringing new, innovative water systems to remote communities,” said Mayor Chris Peabody. “Clean water is something we embrace and will never take for granted. It is heartening to know that the suffering of our community has not been in vain, that it’s possible for a community to overcome adversity and achieve great success despite the challenges they may face.”

source: media release, Municipality of Brockton


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