Protecting Our Sources of Drinking Water: Implementation of Source Protection Plans across Ontario

Chitra Gowda
Conservation Ontario
October 11, 2016
A multi-barrier approach to safe drinking water.

Ontario’s 2006 Clean Water Act is part of the province’s multi-barrier approach to ensure clean, safe and sustainable drinking water by protecting sources including lakes, rivers and wells.


A multi-barrier approach to safe drinking water. Credit: Conservation Ontario
A multi-barrier approach to safe drinking water. Credit: Conservation Ontario

Under this legislation, the drinking water source protection program was established with funding from the Ontario government. This resulted in the development of science-based assessment reports and local source protection plans by multi-stakeholder source protection committees, who are supported by conservation authorities, the Severn Sound Environmental Association and the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula. Conservation authorities operate on a watershed basis and bring together stakeholders across different political boundaries to contribute to the health of our rivers, lakes, and groundwater, supporting public health as part of their work in natural resource management.

The science-based local assessment reports identify vulnerable areas mapped around municipal wells and intakes in lakes and rivers, and identify certain activities as threats to municipal drinking water sources in these vulnerable areas.

Information on vulnerable areas is available from the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change website.

Source protection plan policies either recommend or require that actions be taken to address activities identified as threats. Action tools range from a soft approach, like education and outreach, to a strong approach such as risk management plans or prohibition of an activity.

Ontario has approved all 22 source protection plans, a significant milestone toward improved public health in Ontario.

Implementation of the 22 source protection plans is well underway across the province by various implementing bodies, including municipalities, provincial ministries and conservation authorities. There are many examples of progress in protecting the quality and quantity of sources of municipal drinking water as a result of these plans.

Through new implementation powers under the Clean Water Act, provincially trained and certified risk management officials at municipalities, conservation authorities and other agencies are implementing policies requiring risk management plans and prohibition. Risk management plans include measures to manage activities like hazardous waste chemical storage, fuel storage, manure spreading, fertilizer use, and road salt application in certain vulnerable areas. Monitoring these measures is handled by risk management inspectors.

Risk management officials and landowners working together. Credit: Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority, Quinte Region Conservation Authority
Risk management officials and landowners working together. Credit: Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority, Quinte Region Conservation Authority

Municipal official plans and zoning bylaws are being updated across the province to comply with local source protection plans. Municipalities are screening development and building applications for source protection plan policy applicability. Policies may apply to new or expanded development to manage activities like stormwater management pond discharge, storage of hazardous chemicals, and to maintain recharge to groundwater supplies. Some applications are flagged for local risk management officials to review.


Provincial ministries also are screening applications. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change developed procedures for the review and approval of permits to take water, environmental compliance approvals (for waste disposal sites, sewage works or application of untreated hauled sewage to land) and pesticide permits (for land application). The procedures will ensure that these permits and approvals include terms and conditions to protect sources of municipal drinking water. Road signs that identify drinking water protection zones are being installed across Ontario to increase awareness of protecting valuable sources of drinking water. The installations are through collaboration with the Ontario government,  municipalities, conservation authorities, and others.

A road sign marking a drinking water protection zone. Credit: Quinte Region Conservation Authority
A road sign marking a drinking water protection zone. Credit: Quinte Region Conservation Authority


Septic systems in certain vulnerable areas are subject to mandatory maintenance inspections every five years per the Ontario Building Code. Several of these inspection programs have been initiated across Ontario in the past five years, tied to approval of assessment reports. Information on maintaining your septic system is available from Ontario’s SepticSmart! website. Tips on how to manage road salt in order to lessen damage to the environment and impacts to water sources are available from Conservation Ontario.

Some drinking water supplies in Ontario have known water quality issues, which are monitored and managed in order to ensure safe drinking water. Source protection plans include policies to address activities on the landscape that could contribute to a water quality issue. For example, for a nitrate issue in a municipal well, the policies may require that fertilizers are applied to crops at a specified rate to reduce groundwater contamination.

You also can help protect Ontario’s sources of drinking water. Brochures are available in French and English.

Additional contributors to this article include Diane Bloomfield (project manager, Halton-Hamilton Source Protection Region), Jenna Allain (project manager, Ausable Bayfield Maitland Valley Source Protection Region), Keith Taylor (project manager, Quinte Region Source Protection Region), Rhonda Bateman (general manager, Sault Ste. Marie Region Conservation Authority), and Tim Cumming (communications specialist, Ausable Bayfield Maitland Valley Source Protection Region).

Chitra Gowda
Conservation Ontario

Chitra Gowda is source water protection lead at Conservation Ontario.