B.C. Health Ministry and Provincial Health Officer’s Office not sufficiently protecting drinking water: Report

Auditor General Carol Bellringer

Health Ministry does not know which water systems are at risk and has not developed a strategy to address them

THE Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia has released a report, “The Protection of Drinking Water: An Independent Audit,” which concludes that the Ministry of Health and the Office of the Provincial Health Officer (PHO) are not sufficiently protecting drinking water for all British Columbians.

“We undertook this audit because of the considerable importance of safe drinking water and because the risks to drinking water are increasing,” said Auditor General Carol Bellringer.

Climate change, industrial activity and a growing population all have an impact on B.C.’s drinking water.

“We found that overall, the Ministry of Health and the PHO’s accountability to ensure drinking water was protected is concerning,” Bellringer said.

The oversight of drinking water is complex. It involves many ministries, agencies and pieces of legislation. To ensure clear accountability, government stated that the Ministry of Health would provide leadership and co-ordination, and the PHO would oversee government and those delivering drinking water to all British Columbians.

While the ministry has taken some action to mitigate risks to drinking water, more needs to be done. Specifically, the ministry does not know which water systems are at risk and has not developed a strategy to address them.

The risks of contamination are intensified in small water systems where some communities may struggle to afford sufficient water protection systems and find staff who are qualified in water treatment. The ministry’s actions to address issues in small water systems, which are generally found in rural areas, has been limited. There are approximately 4,800 known drinking water systems in B.C. About 90% of these systems are small water systems that collectively serve approximately 480,000 people.

Overall, the Ministry of Health did not demonstrate leadership in ensuring continuous improvement to the protection of drinking water. The various ministries and agencies have not implemented many of the recommendations from the PHO’s past reports that could have led to further progress. Lastly, both the Ministry of Health and the PHO have not kept government sufficiently apprised of the ongoing risks to drinking water.

“Thankfully, B.C. has not had a known outbreak of water borne illness since 2004, but just a single event that contaminates a drinking water system can cause serious health impacts for numerous people,” said Bellringer.

The office made eight recommendations in the report. Of these, five are to the Ministry of Health and include providing leadership to co-ordinate the ministries, undertaking a legislative review, identifying risks and developing a strategic plan, and reporting out to the public. The other three recommendations are to the PHO. They include taking action to improve its oversight, reviewing legislation, monitoring progress and trends, and reporting out on a timely basis.

The full report is available on the Office of the Auditor General website: www.bcauditor.com