A Lament for MUD
In the first week of May 2012, Environment Canada announced that it was cutting its Sustainable Water Management Program, which included the Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey (MWWS)—formally known as the Municipal Water Use and Pricing survey (MUD/MUP).
It was a sad decision as well as an alarming one. Since I joined Environment Canada in 1992, its water programs have been under attack through re-organizations and budget reductions. For a long time, MUD was the only national source of macro-economic data on municipal water services, most of which data was not available from the provincial or territorial jurisdictions who are the licensing authorities for the operations and services. Without this data, it’s impossible to produce rational policies regarding water resource management.
Although Statistics Canada has undertaken surveys of drinking water utilities, none of its data relates to wastewater services, pricing of water, or consumption patterns. The StatsCan survey is a census of drinking water plants serving 300 or more people, and requests information on volumes of water treated, type of treatment, financial aspects of the operation, as well as raw (source) water quality.
These survey results will produce a national portrait of treatment processes and costs, and source water quality across Canada. The data will be used to track the state of source water stocks and treatment on a regional basis and will also be used in the development of environmental accounts and indicators.
The MWWS, however, collected extensive national information about municipal water and wastewater services in Canada. Municipalities with populations greater than 1,000 were polled about water and wastewater use, treatment, and pricing. In 1999, 87 per cent of the municipalities sent the questionnaire responded.
The 2001 survey collected useful information from approximately 880 municipalities having more than 1,000 residents each, as well as data from municipalities with populations of less than 1,000.
By 2009, the survey covered a total of 2,779 municipalities. The geocoded data could be analyzed by province and territory, economic sector, and municipal population. The data helped produce reports on water conservation measures and financing and pricing of municipal water and wastewater services. Statistics such as water use per person, percentage of the population using water meters, and sectoral water use are not available elsewhere.
Although the surveys varied over the years, and although there were some concerns about the interpretation accuracy at the micro-economic level, the MWWS was the only activity providing data to detect and indicate trends over time. The trend-line analyses and extensive data provided information that supports water management decisions in the broader context of ecosystem management, thus contributing to Canada’s goal of promoting wise and efficient management and use of water.
The alarming aspect of the decision to cut this program is it may indicate that Canada no longer has the goal of promoting wise and efficient management and use of water.
Although others will try taking up the burden of collecting and analyzing this data, the lack of a national catalyst will make the task difficult. The Canadian Water and Wastewater Association is considering what it could do to help carry on the tradition of gathering core national data on which policies should be based.
T. D. Ellison is the former executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association and a former director of water planning and management at Environment Canada. This column originally appeared in Water Canada’s July/August 2012 issue.