An interview with Jim Smith, ODWAC

OMWA interviews Jim Smith, chair of the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council (ODWAC)

Jim Smith, ODWACWhat is the mandate and role of the ODWAC?
The broad mandate of the Council is to provide advice and make recommendations to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change on drinking water quality and testing standards, as well as other drinking water matters deemed appropriate to merit the attention of the Minister.

Can you give us a brief history?
On May 23, 2002, Justice O’Connor, in the Part Two Report of the Walkerton Inquiry, recommended the establishment on an “Advisory Council on Standards” for drinking water, as well as making five specific recommendations with respect to the Council.

On May 12, 2004, The Minister of the Environment announced the establishment of the Ontario
Drinking Water Advisory Council (ODWAC), known formally as the “Advisory Council on Drinking-Water Quality and Testing Standards” in the Safe Drinking Water Act, 2002.

Enabled under Section 4 of the Safe Drinking Water Act, 2002, the Council is “to consider issues relating to standards for drinking-water quality and testing and to make recommendations to the Minister” of the Environment, which are to be “taken into consideration in establishing and revising standards under this Act for drinking-water quality and testing.”

Explain the workings and composition of the Council; how often do you meet, what processes does the Council use to develop positions?
The Minister of the Environment and Climate Change has appointed members from key professional fields representing a cross-section of academia, industry, municipalities and First Nations, with expertise in the areas of microbiology, toxicology, risk assessment, engineering, utility operations, public health, and others with a record of interest and accomplishment related to drinking water. They are all active in their areas of knowledge and bring their current and direct experience to the Council’s deliberations.

The Council meets ten times per year and also forms working groups to address key projects that require additional deliberation by the full Council. Recommendations by Council have always been developed and achieved through consensus. Council uses a range of processes to develop its advice – including informal consultation with experts, associations/organizations such as OMWA, OWWA, Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation (OFNTSC), municipalities and other governments (e.g. federal government, US EPA etc.).

Formal consultations are undertaken through meetings, workshops with invited stakeholders from the drinking water community. Formal consultation can also include public consultation through direct meetings or through a posting on the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry.

The Council posts a report of its activities annually. As the new Chair of the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council (ODWAC), I was pleased to provide the Council’s annual report for 2015-2016. I also would like to recognize the tremendous leadership and contributions of Mr. Jim Merritt from 2004 to 2015, and the tabling of 11 annual reports during his time as Chair.

Can you tell us some of the current initiatives and issues that the Council is working on?
First, and very importantly, the Government made a large number of important regulatory changes last year, which took into account many years of work of the Council.

In December 2014, the MOECC posted, to the Environmental Registry, a Technical Discussion Paper on Proposed Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standards. Based on the comments received, the proposal was updated and the revised version was posted on both the Environmental Registry and the Regulatory Registry in August 2015, for public feedback. The amendments listed below were or will become effective on the following dates:

  • January 1, 2016:
    • The removal of 13 pesticides from the standards and testing requirements;
    • The addition of two methyl-4-chlorophenoxyacetic acid (MCPA) to the testing requirements; and
    • New testing and reporting requirements for trihalomethanes (THMs).
  • January 1, 2017:
    • New testing requirements for haloacetic acids (HAAs); and
    • Updated standards for carbon tetrachloride, benzene, vinyl chloride, chlorate, chlorite and MCPA.
  • January 1, 2018:
    • An updated standard for 0.010 mg/L for arsenic.
  • January 1, 2020
    • A new standard of 0.080 mg/L for HAAs, reporting requirements, and an opportunity for reduced sampling for smaller systems.

The Ministry has taken a leadership role in safeguarding drinking water at schools and day nurseries with respect to children’s exposure to lead. New requirements posted on the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry in Dec. 2016 strengthen regulations for schools and day nurseries and are being phased in starting July 2017.

What is your current work?
Of the many ongoing deliberations, two that are currently receiving considerable attention from the Council are corrosion control and groundwater treatment. Front and centre right now is Health Canada’s proposal for a more stringent Canadian Drinking Water Guideline for lead. The public consultation for their proposal closed in mid-March, but the Council has been actively reviewing their draft and public proposal for the last year.

Ontario has a representative on the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Committee on Drinking Water, who also supports the Council. Ontario is in a very progressive position on lead, given the regulatory requirements that have been in place since 2009. The current Ontario Drinking Water Standard for lead is 10 ppb (parts per billion); under it, 20 municipalities were required to implement lead reduction strategies. The Chief Drinking Water Inspector’s Annual Report provides updates on the progress being made by those municipalities and the strategies they have implemented – corrosion control, lead service line replacement or a combination of both.

The proposal by Health Canada for a more stringent Canadian drinking water guideline for lead of 5 ppb and the need to use ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) will have significant implications for Ontario.

Under Ontario’s current regulatory framework additional municipalities, above and beyond the original 20, would need to implement lead reduction strategies if the guideline is finalized as currently proposed by Health Canada and subsequently adopted as an Ontario drinking water standard. The science and health assessment that underpins the proposed guideline is based on neurodevelopmental effects in children, but the proposed guideline value of 5 ppb still presents a risk to children.

The question of the use of certified end-of-tap filters, which can reduce lead levels below 1 ppb, becomes an important consideration for residents living in homes with lead service lines and young children or expecting women. The Council is closely reviewing the science and also the implementation considerations for Ontario, including the context of what ALARA may mean.

Of interest to OWMA and OWWA, Council has found that there is limited information on what levels of Pb can be achieved through optimised control practices. It appears that 5 ppb and lower can be achieved, however, more technical review and assessment is needed to be confident in that limit. It should be noted that Health Canada set their proposed value of 5 ppb based on US EPA analytical detection limit considerations, and not corrosion control technology limitations.

Another important Ministry policy proposal under development which the Council is reviewing is a new framework for assessing the treatment technology required for ground water based drinking water systems. The proposal is about a clear and sound technical framework to:

  1. Reduce the risk to human health attributable to disease causing microorganisms;
  2. Ensure appropriate treatment is provided for subsurface water supplies.

How does the Council interrelate and coordinate with the MOECC administration and other key industry stakeholders, such as the OMWA, in working to continuously improve the safety of public water supplies in Ontario?
First and foremost, as noted above, the Council’s membership reflects the broad range of professions and qualifications of Ontario’s strong drinking water community, including past and current leaders within OMWA and OWWA.. The members also have or have held careers in a range of institutions and organisations that are responsible for drinking water delivery, safety, assessment and research.

The Council certainly values its relationship with associations such as OMWA and OWWA and attends and presents, when appropriate, at your annual conference. The Council foremost reports to and provides advice to the Minister; however the Ministry may also ask the Council for advice on regulatory policies and technical specifications that it is developing as part of the Ministry’s commitment to stakeholder consultation.

The Council, as far as I know, is the only formal organisation in Canada that has a primary focus on the development and implementation of drinking water standards.

As Chair of the Council, I also have regular meetings with MOECC Senior Management to discuss upcoming priorities, coordinate activities and request for assistance to support the Council on key files for which we require additional resources. Lastly I have also had the opportunity to meet with Minister Murray, and I can say he is absolutely committed to the safety of Ontario’s drinking water and very supportive of the Council’s role and work.

In your opinion, are there any emerging issues that you believe the Council will need to address sooner than later?
The Council reviews the proposals from Health Canada for new or revised Canadian Drinking Water Quality Guidelines and other guidance and makes recommendations to the Minister of MOECC if these should be adopted as Ontario Drinking Water Standards and related policies. Over the next year, we expect to review a number of proposals from Health Canada including bromate, manganese, cyanotoxins, and PFOA/PFOS (perfluoroctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulphonic acid), and, 1,4-dioxane.

In addition, the Council has identified a range of strategic topics important to Ontario that it will assess over the next two years, including distribution system risks, rapid pathogen testing technologies, quantitative microbial risk assessment methodologies, and the significance of three broad classes of chemicals to drinking water – pharmaceuticals, chemicals used in personal care products and new active ingredients used in pesticides.

Council is also following the outcome of the US EPA third Six-Year Review (called Six-Year Review 3) of US national primary drinking water regulations.


Jim Smith is a Professional Engineer who has been active in the field of drinking water management and in the development of air, water and soil standards for the protection of the environment and human health. Mr. Smith’s career spanned over 30 years with the Ontario Government in which he held a range of science policy positions including, Director, Standards Development Branch, Ontario’s First Chief Drinking Water Inspector, and as Assistant Deputy Minister, established the Drinking Water Management Division with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. His work and the work of his division in the field of drinking water management have been recognized through a number of awards. Mr. Smith holds a B.Sc. in Chemical Engineering from Queen’s University and an MBA from the University of Toronto. Mr. Smith was appointed as the Chair of the Advisory Drinking Water Advisory Council on October 27, 2015.
The Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council (ODWAC) currently has 13 members representing diverse academic, industry and regional backgrounds. It plays an important role in Ontario’s drinking water safety net. ODWAC operates at arms-length to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change to provide independent advice on important drinking water matters. This independent advice provides checks and balances to ensure Ontario’s drinking water standards stay current with science and industry best practices. To learn more about the ODWAC visit

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