Walkerton outbreak reminds us to be thankful

Kristen's Comment

Sixteen years ago this week Canada dealt with its most devastating outbreak of E. coli contamination in its history.

So great was the impact that the calendar that hangs on my office wall bears a reminder of the suffering of those unsuspecting, affected residents.

In small script, in the box marking May 17, the calendar reads: ‘Canada’s worst drinking water contamination made public, Walkerton, ON 2000.’

The small, usually quiet town of Walkerton fell victim to an outbreak of waterborne disease that saw seven people die and 2,300 fall ill. The tragic incident was said to be the result of cattle manure washing into a shallow, water-supplying well.

To make matters worse, the region’s public health officer years later determined that the outbreak was likely preventable.

Following a five-year investigation, water system managers in Walkerton plead guilty to criminal charges.

Though many factors lead to the Walkerton tragedy, it prompted municipalities across the country to recognize how vital it is to be vigilant in testing and monitoring community water supplies.

Here in Campbell River we are incredibly fortunate to have a safe, reliable and quality water supply.

Our water is supplied by John Hart Lake and, other than passing through the city’s ultra violet disinfection facility, does not require treatment or filtration.

It’s that good.

Good enough to be recognized internationally for its sound quality. The city placed fourth, and received an honourable mention award, in the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition in 2007. The city’s drinking water was up against community water from roughly 14 different countries. In a recent provincial water quality test, though, we, sadly, didn’t make the top three. But our water’s still good.

Water quality is so important, that the city is currently in the midst of investing in a new $21.51 million system with the help of BC Hydro.

Once Hydro removes the existing water-carrying penstocks, water will instead be delivered via an underground pipeline. The system involves a deep water intake and associated wet well, as well as a pump station and treatment building.

The city has touted the new system as state-of-the-art, seismically sound and one that will last the community for decades to come. The point is, we’re incredibly fortunate here in Campbell River to have safe, reliable drinking water and that it’s a priority for the city.  It’s something you typically don’t stop to think about and often take for granted. A few years ago while in Lima, Peru, that was more evident to me than ever before. To brush my teeth we had to go to the fridge and take out the pop bottle full of water that my dad had previously boiled.

When we went out to eat, we ordered pop because it was cheaper than water which, in Lima, came at a price because it wasn’t readily available from the tap. I don’t think I was able to look at bottle of Coke for months after that trip.

I still remember how the first thing I did upon arriving at our hotel back in Vancouver was to take a drink of water from the bathroom tap. Just because I could. I realized in that moment how lucky I am, and how it’s so easy to take the little things in life for granted.

While all Canadian citizens should have the right to a clean, safe and reliable drinking water supply, in reality that doesn’t always happen.

You need not look further than Walkerton, Ontario, or, even closer to home, the Comox Valley. While the Valley has never experienced anything even remotely close to the tragedy that engulfed Walkerton, those who live in the Comox Valley know from time to time what it’s like to be warned not to drink water from the tap.

Storms have been known to increase turbidity levels in both Comox Lake and the Puntledge River – where the Comox Valley Regional District normally withdraws its water from. The result is a boil water advisory, with the most recent being issued this past March. It was the third such advisory over a span of four months, due to intense rainfall.

While the boil water advisories get tiresome, it’s better than the alternative – keeping residents in the dark that their water is not safe to drink.

We don’t want – or need – another Walkerton.