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Quebec still wasting too much water

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 3/29/2019 1:41:00 PM

Quebec has made important strides toward reducing its per capita water consumption, according to the province’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, but it still has a long way to go.

The Quebec Strategy for Drinking Water Conservation 2019-2025 (available in French only), launched March 22, 2019 (World Water Day), noted that the previous (2011-2017) strategy had cut per capita consumption by 26%, exceeding its target, but Quebec still remained among the country’s thirstiest, with per capita consumption 28% higher than the national average and 55% higher than Ontario’s.

The 2011-2017 strategy also set an objective of reducing water losses across the entire drinking water network to a maximum of 20% by volume and 15 m3 per kilometre of travel. Quebec missed that mark.

Aging infrastructure is a big part of the problem, and a lot of money will be needed to fix it. The 2019-2025 strategy estimates that the total cost of water services across all Quebec municipalities is $5 billion per year. This includes operating, maintenance and needed upgrade costs for drinking water production and distribution, as well as wastewater treatment. However, water services revenues cover only half those costs.

Looking forward, the 2019-2025 strategy calls for reducing the amount of water distributed per capita by 20% compared to 2015, achieving a moderate level of leakage according to the International Water Association’s Infrastructure Leakage Index, and increasing the investments required to maintain assets while gradually eliminating the maintenance deficit.

Because municipalities are on the front line of drinking water delivery, the 2019-2025 strategy promises indicators and objectives, drawn from internationally recognized sources, that will be tailored to the individual needs of the province’s municipalities.

How this will be paid for remains an open question, however. In “Only the Pipes Should Be Hidden”, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission looked at how water and wastewater services were paid for across the country. Among provinces, Quebec mostly relied on property taxes rather than volumetric fees. According to the Ecofiscal Commission, user fees were the best vehicle for raising needed money, but in Quebec, they were widely believed to be socially unjust, disproportionately penalizing the poor and marginalized.

The 2019-2025 strategy punts this problem further downfield. Initially, the province and municipalities will develop a sound estimate for the cost of water service delivery and examine financing sources. This will include pricing and taxes as an option. Quebec says it will continue to offer financial assistance for water infrastructure investments.

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