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Source Water Protection

History of Source Water Protection

Walkerton, Ontario: The catalyst

“The first barrier to the contamination of drinking water involves protecting the sources of drinking water.  I recommend that the Province adopt a watershed-based planning process, led by the Ministry of the Environment and by the Conservation Authorities (where appropriate), and involving local actors.  The purpose is to develop a source protection plan for each watershed in the province…”

- Justice Dennis O’Connor, The Walkerton Inquiry, 2002

Until May 2000, there was little to distinguish Walkerton from dozens of small towns in southern Ontario. It is a pretty town, located at the foot of gently rolling hills, along the banks of the Saugeen River. Walkerton traces its history back to 1850, when Joseph Walker, an Irish settler, built a sawmill on the river, starting a settlement that adopted his name. In time, it became the county seat for Bruce County. The name survived an amalgamation in 1999, when Walkerton was joined with two farming communities to form the Municipality of Brockton. Walkerton has kept its small-town look and feel. Many of its 4,800 residents make their living from businesses that serve the surrounding farms.

In May 2000, Walkerton’s drinking water system became contaminated with deadly bacteria, primarily Escherichia coli O157:H7.1 (E. coli). Seven people died, and more than 2,300 became ill. The community was devastated. The losses were enormous. There were widespread feelings of frustration, anger, and insecurity.  The tragedy triggered alarm about the safety of drinking water across the province.

Immediately, many important questions arose. What actually happened in Walkerton? What were the causes? Who was responsible? How could this have been prevented? Most importantly, how do we make sure this never happens again?

The government of Ontario responded by calling an Inquiry – The Walkerton Commission of Inquiry.   The inquiry was divided into two parts. The first, which is referred to as Part 1, relates only to the events in Walkerton, and focuses on the circumstances that caused the outbreak – including, very importantly, the effect, if any, of government policies, procedures, and practices. The second, Part 2, goes beyond the events in Walkerton, and looks into other matters necessary to ensure the safety of Ontario’s drinking water. The overarching purpose of both parts of the Inquiry was to make findings and recommendations to ensure the safety of the water supply system in Ontario.

Further information:

The Report of the Walkerton Commission of Inquiry, Parts 1 and 2