Exploring Solutions for Sustainable Rural Drinking Water Systems

Lay Summary 

This project focused on communities of 1,000 residents or less in rural Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) and the unique challenges these communities face concerning their drinking water systems. The project also explored appropriate solutions to identified challenges. The scope of this interdisciplinary project was large, exploring four main components of drinking water systems: 1) source water quality and quantity; 2) infrastructure and operations; 3) public perceptions, awareness and demand; and 4) policy and governance. It should be acknowledged that challenges faced by rural NL communities are often interconnected, cumulative and complex, interacting in sometimes unexpected ways. The search for effective potential solutions must take these interactions into account.

The most common concern vocalized by communities of 1,000 residents or less was aging and degrading infrastructure. For instance, on a survey given to community administrators, 59% of Local Service District (LSD) administrators and 44% of administrators from municipalities of 1,000 residents or less indicated a "lack of funds to make necessary repairs or upgrades" as an issue facing their drinking water systems.

In regards to health risks, consultations revealed that many communities are concerned about high disinfectant by-products (DBPs). There have been links found between long-term exposure to DBPs and certain cancers, particularly cancer of the liver, kidneys, bladder and colon, as well as other health impacts. In a related vein, chlorine use and misuse (i.e. too much or too little in the water) has also been noted as a prominent concern amongst municipalities. Furthermore, the prevalence of long-term boil water advisories (BWAs) was found to be a concern particularly applicable in communities with 1,000 residents or less, resulting in compromised access to safe, clean drinking water in rural NL. While primary research related to public perceptions was not a focus of this research, case studies and consultations demonstrate that BWA and DBP concerns along with a distaste for chlorinated and/or discoloured drinking water, encourages some residents to turn to untreated water sources such as roadside springs.

Provincial agencies play a lead role in water governance together with local governments. We found that many communities of 1,000 or less lack the human, financial, technical and institutional capacity to address the drinking water challenges identified by this research. Finding and retaining certified water operators in communities of 1,000 residents or less poses a challenge to the sustainable and safe operation of drinking water systems, as well as making necessary repairs and upgrades on water infrastructure. In addition, strategic management of drinking water infrastructure, including organized leak detection programs and access to all related blueprints and as-builts, is deficient, especially in communities with uncertified water operators.

In relation to management practices of source water, primarily due to the lack of human resources at the local level and the limited provincial resources supporting local communities, source water protection efforts are often overlooked in communities of 1,000 residents or less. Communities are given a great deal of responsibility in providing safe drinking water to their residents. However, in many small communities of 1,000 or less, fully meeting their mandated drinking water responsibilities is virtually impossible with existing human and financial resources. Similar issues of dwindling resources at the provincial level, combined with increasing responsibilities, are resulting in a lack of support for small communities from provincial actors. Overall, it appears that there is insufficient funding and human resources at both the local and provincial levels in NL to achieve sustainable drinking water systems.


Changes are needed in drinking water policy and governance in NL. For example, a greater understanding and emphasis at the local level on regional solutions is needed. Furthermore, greater focus is needed on community-based solutions that focus on capacity development and the engagement and education of local decision makers, staff, the public, and other groups that can help local governments address their drinking water challenges. Action is required to improve the state of drinking water systems in rural NL; however, this will be most effectively accomplished as a shared venture amongst local, provincial, and federal governments. Academia, non-governmental organizations, industry, and citizens also have important roles to play.

Though it would mean a significant monetary commitment at the provincial level, special attention should be given to addressing long-term BWAs as well as conducting a cost-benefit analysis of requiring filtration and/or other DBP reducing technologies for all communities that exceed the Health Canada guidelines for safe levels of THMs/HAAs. Further, we suggest that water rates better reflect the cost of service delivery, while keeping in mind equity concerns and that access to safe drinking water is a human right. Finally, conservation efforts, proper tracking of leaks and other asset management activities, should not be overlooked as important actions for achieving the sustainability of rural drinking water systems in NL.

Environmental Policy Institute
Health Research Unit (Community Health & Humanities)
Environmental Science
Faculty of Engineering & Applied Science
Harris Centre RBC Water Research And Outreach Fund
Mitacs-Accelerate Internship Program
Port au Port East
Woody Point
Black Tickle
Sunnyside, Trinity Bay
Old Perlican
Newfoundland and Labrador
Community Development
Municipal Water Sewer & Roads
Civil Engineering
Water Resources
Municipal government
Provincial government
Urban and Rural Planning
Industry Sectors 
Forestry and Logging
Religious, Grant-Making, Civic, and Professional and Similar Organizations
Start date 
27 Feb 2013
End date 
25 Nov 2014