A lethal E.coli outbreak two years ago in the water supply of a Canadian town could eventually affect rural campgrounds across the province of Ontario, campgrounds that have never had any problems with their well water.
It’s all about the provincial government’s response to the “Walkerton tragedy,” an incident in May 2000 when a deadly strain of E.coli polluted the drinking water in the town of Walkerton, killing seven people and sickening more than 2,300 others.
The tragedy, described in the Canadian press as Canada’s worst ever E.coli outbreak, has prompted the Ontario government to propose sweeping reforms that would require rural campground owners to chlorinate their own well water, depending on their pumping capacity, if they don’t receive treated water from a municipal source.
The impact would be significant. For example, Marcel Gobeil, executive director of the Ontario Private Campground Association, said only about 20 of the association’s 450 campground members receive water from a municipal source. The rest use well water.
But Ontario government officials admit that details of the new regulations and how they would apply to campgrounds have yet to be worked out in detail, partly because of a report that was issued in May contained additional recommendations for water treatment across the province of Ontario.
“Things are in a state of limbo now because of this Walkerton report,” said Matthew Uza, a senior water and wastewater analyst with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. “Right now, we just don’t know how that’s going to play out as far as regulations go.”
But several Ontario campground operators fear compliance with the proposed regulations will cost them more than $20,000 a year.
“It’s a very frustrating time to be in the campground business in Ontario unless you have a lot of money to burn,” said Peter Raithby, past president of the Ontario Private Campground Association and owner of the 185-site Family Paradise Campground near Goderich.
Raithby estimates his costs of complying with the proposed regulations to include $25,000 to $35,000 in capital equipment, including chlorinators, testing equipment and retention tanks, plus $24,000 per year for testing of his two wells.
“The sad part is that it’s going to put campgrounds out of business,” Raithby said. “I don’t think a lot of people really have a clear indication of what this is going to cost them.”
If the proposed regulations are ultimately enforced, Raithby said, he would have to raise his nightly fees by as much as 10% to 15% to cover his costs. The financial pinch will be even more painful for smaller campgrounds, he said, because they would have to spread their costs over a smaller number of campsites.
“It’s going to close me” if the proposed regulations are ultimately enforced, said Doug Patterson, owner of the 100-site Red Oak Travel Park near Tillsonburg, about 45 minutes southwest of London. “I’ve got a small campground and I can’t afford $20,000 a year for testing. We’re a mix of seasonal and overnight or weekend campers. We have about 60 seasonal campers. The rest of the 40 sites are available for weekend and overnight use. There’s no way I can pass on that amount of money.”
Patterson added that his campground doesn’t fill up every weekend, either, making it even tougher to spread the costs of water testing.
Gobeil, Ontario Private Campground Association executive, said the group is working with provincial authorities to clarify and “minimize the impacts” of the proposed regulations on private campgrounds. However, he admits the context of the reforms poses a difficult public relations challenge.
“We’re in a precarious situation,” he said. “The public wants safer water, and it’s very difficult for us to tell the government we don’t want all this regulation. If there were a fatality at one of our campgrounds and we hadn’t been advocating ultimate safety, we’d probably find ourselves in a lawsuit.”
But some campground owners say the proposed regulations go too far.
“I don’t disagree they have to do something,” said Patterson, whose park is located in a farming area where tobacco is cultivated. “But just because of that, don’t paint every well in the province with the same brush. They’re treating campgrounds like a small municipality. I don’t want to give anybody bad water. But I’ve owned this campground for 10 years, and I can’t find a record of a bad water test in 32 years.”
Raithby, whose campground is near a hog farming area, hasn’t had problems with his groundwater, either. “We’ve never had a problem here, nor have the majority of campgrounds,” he said.
Don Mockford, who is executive vice president of the Canadian Recreational Vehicle Association as well as executive director of Campgrounds – Campings Canada, Canada’s national campground association, said he doesn’t expect much relief for campground owners in light of the Walkerton tragedy.
Uza of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment recommends that Ontario campground owners monitor developments in water treatment regulations through the Ontario Private Campground Association and through the website of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment at www.ene.gov.on.ca.