Rural regions in Canada face many challenges when it comes to managing drinking water systems. New research from the University of Saskatchewan examines the potential to manage drinking water using a framework that the author is calling “new regionalism,” involving innovation, multi-level governance, place, and integration.

“The new regionalism-based approach to drinking water recognizes and accounts for the myriad of influencing factors, using different mechanisms to support and encourage drinking water systems in fulfilling their potential role in supporting regional resilience,” said Sarah-Patricia Breen, a post-doctoral fellow from the School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan and lead author of the study.

While the new regionalist framing has more frequently used in other kinds of land development, Breen said, “I wanted to explore it’s potential for drinking water because of the important role drinking water systems (and water generally) play in the development and resilience of communities. I like to give the simple example that boil water advisories do not attract residents or tourists.”

The new regionalism-based approach to drinking water recognizes and accounts for the myriad of influencing factors, using different mechanisms to support and encourage drinking water systems in fulfilling their potential role in supporting regional resilience. Using a case study approach, Breen collected data from interviews of people in the Kootenay Development Region of British Columbia. In the Kootenay Development Region of B.C., rural drinking water systems face deteriorating infrastructure, non-compliance testing, and high operational costs. The research, which was published in the journal Society & Natural Resources states that “Current management approaches are narrow in scope, failing to recognize the complexity of the situation, and, as a result, doing little to address these challenges. […] while the need for an alternative management approach is recognized, and elements of the proposed approach are increasingly applied, substantive barriers remain, such as the existing institutional and jurisdictional structure.”

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Breen suggests that a regional approach to managing water systems could overcome some of these hurdles.

“Acting regionally enables the creation of economies of scale that are not typically found in rural places. An example of this, include multiple communities collectively bringing in a consultant or skilled person, as opposed to each doing so individually (reducing costs, sharing results). But ideally, the benefits go beyond financial, helping to support resilience. For example, the approach encourages integration—making explicit connections between things we often consider to be separate.”

Breen says the best way to create a tangible link between the design and management of a water system and the official community plan because the planning and management of that critical service have to support the future that community is building.

“This approach is suitable within the Canadian context precisely because of the flexibility. Canada is so large, with so many different geographic, cultural, and physical contexts that any common approach would need to be flexible.”

“It’s not uncommon for public works folks within an area to get together to discuss challenges. Build on that network. Can you use it to share parts? Tools? Machinery? Can you use that network to set up emergency staff sharing between communities? The second relates to capacity building. Training is expensive, particularly when you need to send your people to urban centres where they sit in a classroom and learn about a system that’s completely unrelated to the one they use at home. Certified peer-to-peer training, like the pilot done in the Columbia Basin / Kootenay region in B.C., demonstrates how staff capacity can be built locally, helping reduce costs. Third, build support in your community and region. When residents can understand a system, the cost, and how they as individuals benefit, they are more likely to support it.”

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Breen’s research was published in 2018: Exploring a New Regionalism-Based Approach to Managing Drinking Water Systems in Rural Regions, Society & Natural Resources, 31:6, 698-716, DOI: 10.1080/08941920.2017.1423432

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