OMWA: Celebrating Fifty Years

Nineteen sixty-six: fifty years ago. The year the Beatles released their Revolver album. President Lyndon Johnson committed the United States to fight South Vietnam until Communist aggression ended. The Canada Pension Plan and the Quebec Pension Plan both begin operation. The Toronto Transit Commission opened the Bloor-Danforth Subway line. The CBC became the first Canadian television network to broadcast in colour.

And in October, the Ontario Municipal Water Association was formed.

It began with a simple resolution to create an organization “…with respect to area water supply comparable to the Ontario Municipal Electrical Association.” Fifteen participating municipalities from southwestern Ontario all signed it.

A month later, the first constitution was adopted, and in March, 1967, the first annual meeting drew 185 delegates from municipalities from across Ontario and one from Quebec. C.J.F. Ross QC, vice chair of London Public Utilities Commission, was elected as the first president of OMWA. Jim Craig was appointed executive director.

The Ontario Municipal Water Association is unique in Canada: a political organization advocating for municipally-owned water systems. It has no competing interests, allowing OMWA the autonomy to take political positions in the best interests of its membership, and petition government to act accordingly.

In 1969, the first meeting of a new Ontario branch of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) – the forerunner of today’s OWWA – attracted 102 delegates. The new branch opened talks with OMWA to host a joint conference, beginning in 1971. The two organizations also held their first joint annual meeting in 1971.

Strengthening the cooperation and ties between the two associations has been a cornerstone of OMWA’s strategic plans ever since. A liaison committee was created to speak with government agencies on behalf of municipal water supply authorities.

The committee gained a new purpose after the May, 2000, Walkerton tragedy: the province recognized that insight and expertise from the public water supply sector was essential in ensuring a safe and reliable supply of drinking water in Ontario.

At the Walkerton inquiry, an OMWA and OWWA coalition worked jointly on papers for the inquiry, equally sharing the costs. OMWA also reviewed and developed papers for the inquiry on issues such as privatization and governance.

Afterwards, Justice Dennis O’Connor, Chair of the Inquiry, thanked the Ontario Municipal Water Association and the Ontario Water Works Association for the “singularly high quality” of their submissions and noted that the participation of the two organizations, “had been invaluable in considering his recommendations.”

The Joint Executive Committee created during the inquiry remained in place to prepare briefs and make recommendations on various pieces of legislation that has resulted from the recommendations from Justice O’Connor’s Inquiry into the tragedy at Walkerton.

The committee made submissions on the proposed Safe Drinking Water Act. Both associations were asked by the then-Minister of the Environment, the Hon. Chris Stockwell, to be in the public gallery when the legislation was introduced, in 2002.

Doug Parker, former General Manager of the Belleville Utilities Commission and an elected councillor in Belleville, replaced Jim Craig as Executive Director in fall, 2001. He is particularly proud of when the minister publicly acknowledged members of both associations that day.

The Joint Executive Committee has since made many submissions to the government on legislation, regulations and other water-related issues: the Proposed Components of a Safe Drinking Water Act, Certification of Drinking Water Systems Operations and Water Analysts, Reg. 170, Draft Nutrient Management Act, Watershed Based Source Protection, Drinking Water Source Protection, Regulation to Take Water, Bill 175, Sustainable Water and Sewage Act, Infrastructure Renewal Discussion Paper, Places to Grow, Permit to Take Water Manual 2004, Technical Expert Committee on Source Water Protection, and MPIR’s Expert Panel.

In 2005, the Joint Executive Committee issued a lengthy submission to the government for their Water Strategy Report. The report noted that ownership of municipal water systems must remain with the public, and implementation of full-cost accounting and responsibility for water rates remain with the municipal councils.

OMWA was also invited by the Minister of Environment to prepare an in-depth presentation on the proposed source water protection plans as part of the development of the Clean Water Act, in 2006.

Working with a steering committee with representatives from OWWA, WEAO and OMBI, OMWA helped update the Operator in Training manual. A revised edition is planned for late 2016.

Since its inception, OMWA had advocated low interest or no interest loans to water authorities to rebuild aging infrastructure. It also advocated the elimination of grants because these could be seen as a reward to municipalities who had not properly invested in their infrastructure. After presentations to successive Ministers of the Environment, in 2002, the Ontario Financing Authority announced a low interest loan scheme to help remain aging infrastructure for all public sectors in Ontario.

In 2003, OMWA recommended ongoing mandatory education for all persons who set local policy and who had oversight responsibilities for water supply – councillors, commissioners and board members – to ensure they have sufficient knowledge to fulfill their responsibilities. Until a formal training program was developed, OMWA produced its own “Councillor’s Handbook 2004 – Statutory Standard of Care.” It was distributed to all members of OMWA who have oversight responsibilities, including mayors, reeves, councillors and senior staff.

The original founders would be proud of the accomplishments of the association they started. OMWA has been raising issues, conducting studies, preparing briefs, making public policy statements and distributing educational material to its members for many years, often before these concerns were addressed at a provincial level. OMWA discussed uniform accounting policies, full cost pricing, source water protection and back flow prevention and cross connections, as early as the 1970s.

These are only a few of the things OMWA has accomplished or initiated in its 50-year existence. But it is to the future its current leadership looks, not its past.

“I often feel OMWA is the unsung hero, working in the background,” says Andrew Henry, current president of OMWA and a board member for the past eight years. “We’re trying to enhance our profile, improve our relationship with political and executive level groups, develop more strategic partnerships. It’s not an overnight thing; our activities typically take several years to complete.”

The challenge, he adds, is that the public doesn’t think about water issues until they can’t turn on the tap or flush. Henry says that water is a resource, with limited availability, but high implications for society. “Drinking water is fundamental to human life, and should be treated accordingly. But how do you get people to think about water in all its forms, without advertising? How do we get the municipalities in front of that? How do we connect with consumers? It’s a generational thing; it won’t happen overnight.”

Ed Houghton, Executive Director and former OMWA president, notes that the organization’s focus has expanded from drinking water to include both wastewater and stormwater. “What’s important to us is the complete water cycle,” he says.

OMWA will continue to represent its members by being proactive, recruiting knowledgeable and dedicated people in the water industry to serve on the board of directors, by strengthening relationships with other like-minded organizations and forging new relationships with other bodies to ensure the people of Ontario continue to have a clean, sustainable, affordable supply of drinking water.

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