The tragedy of the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton in 2000 signalled the need for change in Ontario’s approach to drinking water safety. Since then, the government has transformed the way we care for and think about our drinking water. 

To ensure residents receive safe, high-quality tap water, the Ministry of the Environment moved from a model of strict regulatory command and control to an innovative drinking water safety net model – a multifaceted approach that focuses on source-to-tap protection. Shared responsibility with our partners for drinking water delivery has been a key factor in the success of the safety net. 

Fundamentally, the provision of safe drinking water is our shared goal and is considered at every stage of policymaking and implementation. The safety net model has redefined approaches to maximize effective service delivery. We have set high standards for operators and provided the necessary training and learning through the Walkerton Clean Water Centre (WCWC) to ensure they are among the best trained in the world. 

The government has also redefined oversight of municipal drinking water systems, moving to a holistic municipal licensing program that is the first of its kind in North America, incorporating quality management and continuous improvement as the premise for effective oversight. We have also worked with municipalities every step of the way in making the licensing program a success.   

Clear water rules

Strong legislation provides the foundation for effective provision of safe drinking water. The Safe Drinking Water Act came into effect in 2002 and the Clean Water Act in 2006. The legislation protects drinking water sources, regulates drinking water systems and sets out science-based standards for the quality of drinking water. Furthermore, partnerships with stakeholders were vital to developing our safety net and continue to play an essential role today. As a result, throughout the course of our transformation, compliance at regulated facilities and inspection results for municipal residential drinking water systems have steadily improved. 

The source protection program is an important part of Ontario’s service delivery method, focusing on the protection of source water prior to treatment and distribution within the community. Through the Clean Water Act, communities are able to safeguard their drinking water supplies through prevention by developing collaborative, local plans that identify and address threats to drinking water. Ministry staff provide ongoing technical, policy and program support to these communities. In addition, the province has provided financial support to source protection planning, investing over $206 million since 2004. 

The Ontario Drinking Water Stewardship program enables farmers, property owners, municipalities and businesses across Ontario to take action to protect local drinking water sources. To date, more than 2,000 projects, such as upgrading septic systems and wells, have been implemented. 

Innovative approaches

With the implementation of our integrated approach to safe drinking water delivery, Ontario’s drinking water has become among the best protected and highest quality in the world. Our expertise in fostering innovative approaches to drinking water protection allows us to share our knowledge with jurisdictions internationally. In our common goal for safe drinking water we have hosted numerous international delegations and entered into cooperative agreements with China and the Netherlands.

Today, the drinking water safety net system continues to achieve significant results. Each year the ministry issues the Minister’s Annual Report on Drinking Water and the Chief Drinking Water Inspector’s Annual Report on drinking water quality and inspection results for drinking water systems. In 2009-10, 99.88 percent of water quality tests from municipal water systems met Ontario’s rigorous standards. Recently, Ontario was the only province across Canada to receive an “A” rating in drinking water protection by Ecojustice, a national environmental organization. As well, our safety net model was honoured with the Institute of Public Administration of Canada Silver Award for Innovative Management in 2009. During 2010-11, the WCWC trained more than 8,980 water professionals. Since October 2004, more than 31,000 course participants received training delivered by the Centre.

By working together with our stakeholders we successfully redefined the service delivery of Ontario’s drinking water. We will continue to leverage our innovative safety net system and remain vigilant in our duty to provide safe drinking water to Ontario residents.


John Stager is an assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of the Environment and Ontario’s chief drinking water Inspector. For more about Ontario’s drinking water, see the latest Chief Drinking Water Inspector Annual Report at