Intervenor: vol. 27, no. 3 - 4, July - December 2002

Toronto Water Watch Wins: Council Votes Against Arm's-Length Water Agency

The intensive efforts of Toronto Water Watch have resulted in the City Council deciding to reject Mayor Mel Lastman's plan to turn over the management of the largest drinking water system in Canada to an arms-length agency. Through Toronto Water Watch, CELA, together with other environment and labour groups and many concerned residents opposed one of the most baffling schemes ever to be floated from City Hall. The year long process involving a study entitled, Water and Wastewater Utility Study, and a series of public consultations on the plan served only to muddy the already murky proposal. City staff reports confirmed that Toronto's drinking water was among the best in the world, was tested more frequently than most cities by the City's own labs. During the year City Council approved a staged water and wastewater rate increase over five years to address infrastructure replacement and large capital projects. The City's study identified the following problems:

  • monies raised from water rates collected by the City Finance Department were not made available to the Works Department to reinvest in infrastructure renewal. Instead the monies went to general coffers and were used for other programs,
  • a need to increase its focus on water, and
  • the City purchasing policy was standing in the way of repairing the existing water system.

The main study recommendation was that these institutional log jams could only be remedied by taking water management out of the City's hands completely with a new approach to "governance" - an arm's-length agency. Many residents felt this was the first step toward privatization. The Mayor promised he would not sell the assets. However, in the course of the debate, it came out that the Chair of the Works Committee Brad Duguid and Case Ootes, the Chair of the Policy and Priorities Committee had lunch with lobbyists for a large multi-national water company. The public voiced their concerns that the arm's-length agency would be seeking financing from private sources rather than making water and wastewater sustainable over the long term. The set-up and operating costs of a new corporate entity and offices would draw water away from the business of delivery of services.

Accountability was a huge issue for the public that wanted all councillors responsible for these services, not only the few appointed to the Board of the new utility. The new utility would only be reporting annually to Council and would be more distanced from the City's Medical Officer of Health, who has the ultimate responsibility for the safety of our drinking water. Concern was expressed about the future of the public's working relationship with the City. Would all of the public advisory committees working on improving the quality of our water and wastewater, beaches and rivers be jeopardized? Talk of streamlining the purchasing system did not sit well as the revelations about the MFP computer purchasing scandal emerged. Just as the vote was coming to Council there was a public outcry about the escalation of hydro rates one year after deregulation.

Toronto Water Watch supported the newly appointed City Water Advocate, Councillor Irene Jones' solution released before the Council vote. All of the City's concerns could be addressed if water and wastewater was retained as a separate Committee with control of its own budget and planning. In the end with no demonstrated public support, City Councillors facing a fall election supported the alternative proposed by their Water Advocate. With this vote, the ideological commitment of City Council to pursue alternative service delivery of city services made the previous fall, sprung a significant leak.

Communities world-wide are fighting similar proposals from local governments desperate to devolve responsibility for neglected water and wastewater systems without first considering how to take the brave step of tackling the problem themselves. What it means for communities is that they now have to take on these long and costly fights to tell their local governments how to do their jobs and keep public services public.

For more information:

To obtain a copy of the Toronto Water and Wastewater Utility Study, visit www.city.toronto.on.ca/involved/utilitystudy/index.htm.

For the Public Citizen's Water for All Campaign, visit www.citizen.org/cmep/water.

For governance models under consideration in Canada, read a new report from the Munk Centre for International Studies Program on Water titled, Good Governance in Municipal Restructuring of Water and Wastewater Services in Canada (November, 2002) at www.powi.ca/recentresearch.html.