Water and wastewater

Municipalities in Alberta are responsible for providing water and wastewater services to residents. This is not a simple task, with service providers working to prevent contamination, meet stringent regulations, and manage prohibitive costs. Across Alberta, concerns have been raised that the current water allocation is ill-suited to our changing climate and water supplies, municipalities are struggling to attract and retain skilled water and wastewater operators, and contamination remains a pervasive threat.

Choose one of the accordions below for more information on major issues in drinking water and wastewater:

Water allocation is the process by which the Government of Alberta grants licenses for water use. Under this system, municipalities, private companies, individuals and other users can apply for a license to withdraw a certain amount of water from a water source each year. In the South Saskatchewan River Basin, where there is a Water Management Plan in place, existing licensees can voluntarily transfer their allocation to other licensees or new users subject to review by the regulator.

The legislative framework for the current water allocation system is Alberta’s Water Act, which has evolved over the last 100 years to address the changing use of our water supplies. However, increasing demand, decreasing supplies, and the ongoing changes to the environment driven by climate change have placed considerable strain on the allocation system, especially in southern Alberta.

Graphic Source: Alberta Energy Regulator: Water Use Report

Graphic Source: Government of Alberta. Facts About Water in Alberta. 2010

For more information on water allocation in Alberta, choose one of these:

Municipalities are increasingly concerned about the growing level of contamination in water. Various products that are commonly used by people across the country, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products, are often flushed into water systems, creating the risk that our source water becomes unfit for use. These include products that many people would not think twice about disposing of, such as flushable wipes or skincare products with microbeads. In addition, uncontrolled stormwater runoff and wastewater leakage can deliver pesticides, fertilizer, animal waste, and hydrocarbons from residential, industrial, and agricultural uses into our water.

In Canada, contaminants are managed in several different ways. The federal government is responsible for setting out regulations, guidelines and objectives related to chemical contaminants and does so by assessing all new chemical substances for toxicity. When a substance is found to be toxic, Environment Canada conducts a further assessment of the risk the contaminant poses to human and environmental health and may ban or restrict it. As of fall 2018, 3,621 substances have been assessed under the current Chemicals Management Plan, and 456 have been found to be toxic.

However, even chemicals that are allowed for use can be damaging to our water supplies, and this is where the provincial government comes in. The province is responsible for monitoring and reporting water quality, and currently does so through the Alberta Environmental Monitoring and Science Program, which makes a variety of reports and information available to the public on their website.

Municipal tools for contaminants in water

Municipalities can employ several tools to reduce contaminants in water. For instance, stormwater management practices can reduce the number of impervious surfaces that allow stormwater to run unfiltered into water supplies. Protection of wetlands and riparian environments can also help prevent sedimentation and manage contaminants before they enter source water. In addition, innovative wastewater and drinking water systems can both reduce the amount of contaminants entering water supplies, and treat the contaminants that have already entered.

Municipalities are responsible for implementing drinking water standards that are set and enforced by the Government of Alberta but derived from national guidelines. These standards and guidelines take into account operational considerations while protecting public health. Rising standards can be a significant cost driver for municipal systems. Municipalities want to be involved in reviewing drinking water regulations. It is important drinking water standards and regulations are realistic for municipalities to meet and that higher order of government provides necessary financial support to help municipalities to transition.

Here is a breakdown of current responsibilities related to drinking water:

  • Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Drinking Water (CDW)

    Develops guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality

  • Alberta Environment and Parks

    Provides comprehensive and scientifically defensible standards and guidelines which must be applied in municipal systems

  • Alberta Health Services

    Implements the Health Act which applies to all water systems where there is concern with health impacts or disease transmission

  • Municipalities (owners/operators of water systems)

    - Design, construction and operation of the waterworks and wastewater systems so that they meet, as a minimum, provincial regulatory requirements;

    - maintaining water distribution system to the service connection;

    - assisting home/building owners to identify any water quality issues within building plumbing

  • Building Owner Operator

    Responsible for plumbing repairs, system corrections and water quality within their building


Canadian drinking water quality guidelines

The Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality are designed to protect the health of the most vulnerable members of society, such as children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. The guidelines set maximum allowable concentrations of microbiological, chemical and radiological contaminants.

Alberta Drinking Water Regulations and Standards

In Alberta, municipal water systems are governed by the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA), which makes the owners/operators of water systems (mainly municipalities) responsible for the day-to-day operation of treatment plans.

EPEA’s Potable Water Regulation mandates that systems must produce water that meets the maximum allowable concentrations specified in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality described above. The regulation also requires systems to meet the Standards and Guidelines for Municipal Water Works and Storm Drainage Systems. In line with the Source to Tap Multi-Barrier Approach developed by the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Drinking Water, the standards and guidelines document prescribes everything from source protection to pressure at customer connections.

Drinking water safety plans

The Province has mandated that all municipal drinking water systems have a Drinking Water Safety Plan (DWSP).

A drinking water safety plan is a proactive method of assessing risk to drinking water quality, which better protects public health. Plans are based on an assessment of risk factors that could potentially adversely affect drinking water quality.

Assessments consider such things as:

  • The source of the water;
  • How drinking water is treated; and
  • How treated water is stored and distributed.

Like Canada’s existing approach, DWSPs are comprehensive and identify risks and hazards throughout all steps of the water supply system – form catchment (source) to consumer. In contrast to the traditional water management approach, which is largely prescriptive and reactive, the DWSP approach requires continuous self-assessment and a commitment to improvement.

Alberta Environment and Water has developed a template to assist operators in preparing a DWSP. Click here to find the template and access more information on DWSPs.

Wastewater standards in Canada are set out in the federal government’s Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations. Environment Canada has published a website  providing information on wastewater, wastewater regulations and reporting requirements, wastewater pollution, and wastewater management. It provides a good background to federal regulations and issues in wastewater management. Prior to the establishment of the federal standards, wastewater standards were set solely by the provincial government.

As standards in Alberta were already high compared to other provinces, the federal standards had less of an impact in this province than in the rest of the country. However, concerns have been raised about the impacts of increased monitoring and reporting requirements. Even though Alberta’s standards are high, municipalities are currently required to report to both the provincial and federal governments. This duplication of effort is costly and time-consuming.

Harmonization of wastewater standards is imperative as in the past, municipalities have been charged for violating federal regulations even though they were in full compliance with the provincial standard. The provincial and federal governments have been working towards an agreement, but the process has not been completed. Alberta Municipalities has called for the provincial and federal governments to complete this process so that municipalities may move forward without the resource-intensive requirement to complete two reports.

The provision of a safe, secure drinking water supply depends on the people who operate water and wastewater systems. Concern is growing because municipalities are struggling to attract and retain qualified water and wastewater operators and affiliated operations personnel (e.g. technicians, technologists, professional engineers, skilled trades).

A water and wastewater operator refers to a cluster of occupations that is regulated by Alberta Environment and Parks. There are five disciplines of Water and Wastewater Operators:

  1. Water Treatment Operators
  2. Wastewater Treatment Operators
  3. Water Distribution Operators
  4. Wastewater Collection Operators
  5. Small Systems (Water & Wastewater)

Each municipality that is accountable for a treatment facility, distribution or collection system will have specific compliance obligations for Certified Operators detailed in the approvals document for the facility or System’s Code of Practice. Hiring and retaining water operators can be an ongoing challenge, especially for smaller municipalities.

The Alberta Water and Wastewater Operators Association (AWWOA) is engaged in initiatives to encourage more people to choose water and wastewater operations as a viable and rewarding career and even provides subsidies and funding to support operator training.  Municipalities are also collaborating through operational consortiums to share operators and through reciprocal agreements to provide coverage when operators are on holiday or off sick.

Example: A Collaborative Solution

The Villages of Marwayne, Kitscoty, and Dewberry were having difficulty retaining water operators, which threatened their viability as communities in terms of providing citizens a safe, secure supply of drinking water. The villages decided that inter-municipal cooperation was the solution to effectively operate and maintain their drinking water supply systems.

The cooperative solution involved a multi-step approach:

Step 1: Complete Operator Consortium Report exploring various models for the project

Step 2: Develop a business case which included a governance model

Step 3: Implement a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system

Step 4: Hire a regional water operator

The regional approach has proven to be more cost-effective and resulted in increasing the capacity and competitiveness of the villages involved. The project highlighted the importance of small urban municipalities working together to solve problems.