March 20, 2006

Better enforcement of regulations, more education needed to ensure sustainability of Ontario water wells

The quality of groundwater from which private wells in Ontario draw their water is excellent and supplies are abundant in most areas of the province, but the well infrastructure itself is in decline. A large percentage of recorded and unrecorded wells currently providing potable water are reaching the end of their design life, and innovative new approaches will be needed to sustain and manage both the existing and growth-generated water well infrastructure.

These are among the main findings of an expert panel on Sustainable Water Well Infrastructure (SWWI), whose report, Water Well Sustainability in Ontario, was released on March 9.

"By and large the water supply from private and municipal wells appears to be abundant and safe. We believe that this report provides opportunities for Ontario to further improve the longevity of water wells through education programs aimed at well owners and better enforcement of existing regulations," said panel chair Dr Kent Novakowski, an associate professor of civil engineering at Queen's University specializing in hydrogeology and microbiological interactions in a well environment.

The SWWI project was launched by the Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE) in 2002 as part of the province's continuing response to the Walkerton inquiry. While regulatory and policy activities have focused on larger water supply and distribution systems, this project was directed at the most fundamental of water sources, i.e. the water well.

As part of this initiative, the MOE asked the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), through its Centre for Earth and Environmental Technologies, to assemble and support an independent, multidisciplinary expert panel to examine the current state of Ontario's water well infrastructure, determine emerging threats to this infrastructure, and recommend ways to mitigate these threats. This group of scientists and engineers was established in September 2003.

Other members included: consultant Brian Beatty, a specialist in hydrogeology and groundwater resources and president of WB Beatty & Associates; Dr Mary Jane Conboy, a water resources researcher with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, specializing in rural water wells and bacterial transport; and John Lebedin, a specialist in the sustainability of water well infrastructure and manager of the earth sciences unit for the federal department of Agriculture and Agri-Food's Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration.

For the purposes of the study, private wells were defined as any water supply not used to support a municipal water distribution system. This includes domestic wells (drilled, dug or bored); water supply wells for industrial, commercial, institutional or agricultural uses; and wells that support small waterworks.

The study gathered information on water well construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning, as well as on the regulatory framework governing wells, in particular Ontario regulation 903 (the revised regulation dealing with the construction and maintenance of all wells). The final report makes a total of 44 recommendations, ten of which are considered critical to promoting the longevity of water wells in Ontario.

The panel found that although the MOE has been active in mapping groundwater resources, it has never conducted a comprehensive, province-wide survey of private wells. Between 10,000 and 20,000 new wells are constructed each year in Ontario, but it is uncertain how many of those are replacements for failed, low-yield or abandoned wells.

Also unknown for sure is the number of wells abandoned or properly decommissioned each year. It is estimated that there are at least half a million abandoned wells throughout Ontario, and the panel considers these to pose a significant risk of aquifer contamination because they provide a direct conduit from the surface to the aquifer.

Moreover, even though Ontario was one of the first jurisdictions in North America to require that water well records be submitted for inclusion in a publicly accessible database (beginning in the early 1950s), the location of abandoned wells is often unknown, which presents a challenge to the elimination of this contaminant pathway.

Two shortcomings also serve to undermine the current database system: first, there is no legal requirement for well owners to transfer the well record to new owners; and second, the MOE's aging water well data management system is not up to date or easily accessible by the general public.

Accordingly, the first of the panel's top ten recommendations calls for the immediate conducting of a comprehensive, province-wide survey of water quality in all private wells, including unregulated wells such as rural and cottage wells and private wells in urban areas, as well as farm wells. This survey should be repeated every ten years, adds the panel.

The report further recommends that the MOE make an interactive, user-friendly groundwater Web site available to the public. It should contain information such as the results of comprehensive groundwater studies, water well records data, groundwater monitoring network data, and well water quality data compiled by the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care. As well, a stakeholder group should be set up immediately to investigate alternatives for managing the water well database. It should report to the Minister of Environment within 12 months of its formation, the report adds.

A review of policy and regulations pertaining to wells in Ontario led the panel to commend the MOE for actively using outreach programs to foster implementation of regulation 903 (governing the construction and decommissioning of wells), for introducing revisions to the permit to take water legislation (regulation 387/04), and for its proposed source protection planning program. It found, however, that implementation and enforcement of regulation 903 is inconsistent and incomplete and said that without inspection and enforcement, the regulation's objectives will not be achieved.

Consequently, the report calls for enforcement of the regulation by a third-party organization with staff who are knowledgeable about the water well industry. To ensure due diligence and compliance with regulation 903, a third-party organization should also be engaged to develop an education and outreach program for the drilling industry, it adds. The province's Well Aware program for promoting well stewardship should receive continued funding and support, with consideration given to expanding the program into more Ontario communities.

The panel recommends that the MOE introduce legislation requiring the status of all used and unused water wells to be disclosed by the owner upon the sale or transfer of the property on which the wells are located. Disclosure records should report well performance, the quality of all operating water wells, and the status and condition of all unused wells. A provision for a phase-in period should be included, to allow time for trained water well service companies to develop across the province.

Other recommendations call for membership in an accredited professional groundwater association to be mandatory for all workers involved in water well activities; continued government funding to be provided for subsidy programs for well upgrading and decommissioning; and support by the government for a new sustainable asset management training program at Sir Sanford Fleming College.

This program, says the panel, should focus on the practices and methods necessary for developing life-cycle management strategies for Ontario's water well infrastructure. It would foster the growth of a badly needed service industry dedicated to maintaining, rehabilitating and decommissioning water wells.

The panel's report is comprehensive in its research, analysis and recommendations. It may be downloaded from

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