Canadian Consulting Engineer

Sharing the Load

June 1, 2012
By Barry Steinberg, P.Eng., Consulting Engineers of Ontario

Later this year the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (WSER) are expected to be released.

Later this year the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (WSER) are expected to be released.

The new regulations will serve as a perfect example of the lack of shared responsibility that exists for infrastructure in Canada, and the resulting impacts. The debate over sharing the load of infrastructure investments and maintenance between municipal, provincial and federal governments has been ongoing for decades.

As it stands, a majority of the infrastructure upgrades required by the regulations will be borne by the municipalities. The expense is expected to be in the billions of dollars.

How is it that in an era of fiscal challenge and infrastructure deficits, the federal government with its vast resources can implement regulations that burden other levels of government more heavily than its own?

We need to start thinking differently. We need to start working together.

The Government of Canada’s announcement in November 2011 that it will develop a national long-term infrastructure plan presents an opportunity for municipalities, provinces and the federal government alike. They have the chance to ensure that large-scale infrastructure projects that affect large numbers of Canadians are handled strategically and with joint responsibility.

Implementing the infull is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that potential and to improve the quality of Canada’s water systems.

The 2010 version of the regulations stated that, “effluent from wastewater systems represents one of the largest sources of pollution, by volume, in Canadian waters.”1

The proposed regulations will:

• Phase out the dumping of untreated and undertreated sewage into our waterways, and;

• Provide clarity for rules on reporting for more than 3,700 Canadian facilities.2

The country’s wastewater facilities serve 28 million Canadians in 1,294 municipalities. Of those serviced:

• 68% receive water that has undergone secondary treatment;

• 23% receive primary treated water

• 6% are served by stabilization ponds and;

• 3% of wastewater goes untreated into the environment.3

The investment requirements of each facility to reach compliance according to the new regulations will differ depending on the asset’s risk factor. If we are streamlining the expectations for municipal wastewater performance, should we not be streamlining the associated funding?

The briefing information on the regulations indicates that facilities are divided into high, medium and low risk categories to determine which should be targeted first. High-risk facilities represent almost half of the total number of wastewater facilities expected to need upgrading. Under the proposed timelines, these would need to comply by 2020. While 15 per cent of the facilities in need of upgrades are federally-owned, provinces like Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Quebec have a high number of assets to be upgraded in the next eight years.

In order to fulfil these water upgrade requirements successfully, we need to root them in the national long-term infrastructure plan. If an investment as significant as this is omitted from the plan’s considerations, then the plan simply won’t be strategic, national or long-term.

The burden cannot solely rest on municipalities. Innovative funding models must be considered to enable communities to meet this challenge in a country that prides itself on its public water systems.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to align the infrastructure priorities of all three levels of government in addition to aligning the associated funding. Only then, will Canadians tackle the infrastructure deficit, improve the environment and emerge as a leader in key priority areas like wastewater management. cce

Barry Steinberg, P.Eng., is chief executive officer of the Consulting Engineers of Ontario, vice-chair of the Construction Design Alliance of Ontario, and chair of the Professional Engineers Ontario Government Liaison Committee.





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