General conclusions and recommendations

This research has documented many important characteristics of small Quebec drinking water utilities. As it shows through all of chapters of the present thesis, small utilities are not a monolithic world; instead, they may differ significantly according to number of specificities dealing with their diverse structural components.

The first chapter allowed distinguishing three groups of utilities as for historically distributed water quality: first, utilities which never experienced problems with microbiological water quality during the period of reference; second, utilities that occasionally encountered difficulties complying with drinking water regulations relating to total coliforms; and, third, utilities which very often infringed upon quality standards. The first two groups can be considered as distributing relatively safe water to their customers; they have been called nonproblematic utilities. The last group obviously consists of utilities that have major problems; thus, called problematic utilities.

From the portrait of small Quebec municipal utilities, emerged that most of problematic utilities are indeed among those that directly chlorinate surface waters without any other treatment. The new, 2001 QDWR made even bigger the challenges such utilities face; the reason being that, unable to comply with coliform standards, these utilities will now have to cope with parasites, viruses, and monitoring of trihalomethanes, to name a few. It is hard to believe that small problematic utilities will overcome such obstacles, without managing, at least in a filtration facility, to reduce NOM content in their distributed water.

It is to be strongly underlined, however, that, in terms of strict public health concern, the problematic utilities are not necessarily serving water bearing more of a health threat than the water served by the nonproblematic ones. In fact, the distinction into nonproblematic and problematic has been made exclusively based on total coliform data, which may tell more about the overall healthiness of the distribution system than about real health hazards. As a matter of fact, none of databases used for this study included data on parasites like Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium parvum , or on viruses or other waterborne pathogens because of an almost total lack of data about them.

Studying the spatial and temporal variation of drinking water quality in the ten small utilities allowed demonstrating in reality that problematic utilities have lower overall microbiological water quality from the plant to the distribution extremity. However, raw water quality appeared slightly favouring problematic utilities. So, all of these facts suggest that the causes of observed differences between nonproblematic and problematic utilities should be primarily searched for within the distribution system.

The most significant differences between the nonproblematic and the problematic group of utilities were found in residual chlorine concentrations, starting at the chlorination facility outlet and ending at distribution system extremity. Overall, disinfection-related water quality parameters (i.e., chlorine doses and residuals) invariably favoured nonproblematic utilities. Taking into account that all of the ten example small utilities (i.e., those studied in Chapters 2 and 3) apply no other treatment than chlorination, this fact appears as the most important in terms of potential explaining factor of differences observed between the two utility groups as for historical water quality. Given the characteristics of the raw waters used by the ten investigated utilities, the nonproblematic utilities appear to be able to successfully deal with the challenge of efficient and simultaneous control of the acute disease risk (represented by pathogenic micro-organisms) and the chronic health hazard linked to DBPs, even though their THM levels were higher than those measured in problematic utilities (with differences being not statistically significant). Nevertheless, nonproblematic utilities should devote more attention to appropriate, balanced disinfection practices, avoiding continually overestimating the microbial risk. As for problematic utilities, the disinfection-related variables appeared being those upon which their managers should primarily act to achieve relatively quick and substantial changes in terms of distributed water quality. Problematic utilities need also a better control of natural organic matter related parameters (i.e., TOC and UV254 nm). Among microbiological water quality parameters in current distributed water quality, the most significant differences are related to HPC bacteria counts. This fact points towards a better overall salubriousness within water distribution lines pertaining to nonproblematic utilities.

Eight of the ten example small utilities obtain raw water halfway between surface and groundwater, i.e., from surface wells. So, they do not fall directly into the category for which filtration has been made mandatory by the 2001 QDWR. A recent visit (June 2003) permitted to notice that all of the eight will most probably remain on the same type of raw water. Nonetheless, they will have to demonstrate to the QME that they possess the technical and operational capabilities to produce water that consistently meets the new provincial standards without filtration. As an example, utility IV managers already installed a UV-disinfection system to meet Giardia and Cryptosporidium requirements, which they would have had very little chance to achieve with chlorination alone. It is possible, even probable, that most of the seven others will follow in that direction. As for the two unequivocally surface water utilities (i.e., those that drew their raw water from lakes), they will undoubtedly have to install filtration or change water source for groundwater. In fact, a recent visit permitted to notice that utility I is preparing to change source for groundwater, whereas utility II is seriously engaged in a filtration facility construction project.

The last chapter results underline the imperious need of optimization of operations and infrastructures. Indeed, reviewing and comparing distribution operations and components between nonproblematic and problematic utilities allowed noticing serious inaccuracies in operations or techniques (e.g., manual chlorination) and shortages in a number of normal distribution component parts (almost general absence of emergency chlorinators). That being said, the indicators of performance for small utilities, developed using utility operational, as well as infrastructure and maintenance characteristics, unequivocally point towards better performances in nonproblematic utilities, which are also those having the best current water quality in the distribution system, as a group. Special focus should come on disinfection-related performance sub-indicators, and those for infrastructure and its maintenance. It appears that these factors are really those that have the biggest impact on distributed water quality in small utilities at study. Moreover, the developed small utility performance indicators suggest that it is very difficult to make good tap water from bad source water; however, it is very feasible to improve water quality between the source and the consumer’s tap when adequate operational, infrastructure, and maintenance, as well as human and organizational resources are brought together.

As far as human and organizational factors are concerned, indications are that they probably play a much more important role in the quality of the consumer’s tap water than most stakeholders notice. That is not surprising, since even the most sophisticated and complete equipment will not bring satisfaction in terms of distributed water quality over a long span if not handled by a sufficiently qualified staff, supported by an adequate organizational structure. As a matter of fact, some of the analyzed utility manager distinctive features appeared really worth attention. These related essentially to educational background as it concerns the drinking water domain, and training issues tied to new QDWR, experience in the drinking water field, awareness of and preparedness for the challenges brought in by new QDWR, not to mention the all-important support from local municipal authorities.

On the whole, the results of this research suggest that small utilities experience a serious shortage of qualified managers. Even with the limited technical and financial resources they have, these utilities would have achieved much better water quality standards if they were managed by people having undergone an adequate preparation for the drinking water industry. It is the responsibility of all levels of government (federal, provincial, municipal or local) to ensure that this situation is corrected as soon as possible, since it represents a big and direct threat to public health. The unfortunate incident that took place in May 2000 in the small community of Walkerton (Ontario, Canada) was mainly due to human error, and that certainly was not an isolated case.

Small utilities are not attractive for the private sector, since their customer base is often too narrow to allow for economies of scale. They are not rich enough to purchase new, expensive technologies and equipments. Even when, under exceptional circumstances (e.g., 2001 QDWR mandatory upgrading for most of provincial small utilities), they find themselves with up-to-date drinking water facilities, they are not even well-off enough to ensure keeping up with the times. Therefore, the public sector must bear the whole responsibility and burden of small utilities to give them a chance to become and stay efficient in terms of distributed water quality over the long term. Small utilities should not be expected to take up such a challenge by their own.

The results of this study underline the necessity to promote integrated water resources management, from the watershed to the consumer’s tap. This requires joint governmentally centralized management programs integrating agriculture/animal husbandry, as well as forestry and environmental sections. The agriculture/animal husbandry section would be in charge of agricultural land use factors (initiating measures to limit water resources pollution tied to agricultural production and animal faeces). The forestry section would be responsible for controlling deforestation and its corollaries, such as erosion strengthening (erosion being considered an important contributing factor of turbidity of raw surface waters). As for the environmental section, it would be in charge of limiting water resources pollution directly tied to human beings and activities (sewage, leisure activities, industrial productions, and so forth). Only specialized governmental institutions could undertake and implement that type of joint management programs, but there is no getting away from that if water resources are to appropriately serve the present population of the Planet, while being adequately preserved for the future generations. These considerations are valid for developed and developing countries alike.

Finally, it appears necessary to mention some limitations of this study. For instance, the different data sources utilized in Chapter 1 led to different data considerations that may render difficult a comparison of the results obtained herein to those of other studies. In Chapter 3, the little size of study sample (only ten utilities) and the manager interviews (who do not necessarily say all that they think or know) are probably potential sources of bias. Future studies on small Quebec drinking water utilities may be advantaged by taking much more important study samples (i.e., numbers of utilities) than those mentioned in this work. As an example, surveying the whole population of small Quebec municipal utilities (n=927) in Chapter 1, in lieu of the 250 actually surveyed, would certainly have given much more representativeness to the results of this study. Likewise, taking all 114 Chapter 1 responding utilities for further study in Chapters 2 and 3, would also have significantly strengthened the conclusions of the research. In Chapter 2, adding viruses and parasites to studied current distributed water microbiological parameters would have made the study almost complete in terms of microbial contaminants of public health relevance. Unfortunately, all of these possibilities could not be exploited in the present study, due to limitations in time, as well as financial, technical, and logistic means.