Software firm offers tool to prevent Walkerton-type tragedies

Next week, the public will get its first look at the judicial inquiry report into the Walkerton water tragedy and its conclusions about where responsibility for the E. coli-related deaths and illnesses lies.

In Vancouver, meanwhile, a startup is rolling out a high-tech water-monitoring system

it says can prevent another incident like the one in the Ontario town in which seven people died and 2,300 fell ill.

Watertrax Inc. began development of its Web-based application service provider system in April 2000, just one month before Walkerton went from being a town few had heard of to a historical event. It is the brainchild of Ron Green, a water engineer who served 20 years with the federal government, carrying the responsibility for water quality on native reserves in British Columbia.

The Watertrax system works to safeguard water quality in two ways, according to Watertrax vice-president of product management Chris Baisley. It improves the efficiency of lab result reporting, Baisley said, by eschewing traditional methods of mail and fax in favour of a secure database.

“”It really enables reporting to be done very quickly,”” he said, adding that it also cuts down time needed for consultantcy studies.

The system also features an alerting function that informs necessary authorities when test results show that water samples fail to meet guidelines of the jurisdiction in question. Baisley said it is Watertrax’s responsibility to keep up to date on changes in jurisdictions in which the system is available.

“”The system can alert many people simultaneously,”” Baisley said. “”You could configure it to notify everyone up to the mayor.””

In Walkerton, Public Utilities Commission manager Stan Koebel was able to alter water records and keep lab results from health officials. Baisley said the Watertrax system allows only the lab to adjust results, which can be accessed by any officials the municipality decides should view them.

For small communities like Walkerton, the Watertrax system would cost about $1,000 per year. Kevin Mercer, executive director of Riversides, a Toronto-based water-quality advocacy group, said the Watertrax system looks to be useful, but that it might not be the best way to spend $1,000 per year.

“”It’s feeding into this paranoia that there’s all these Stan Koebels out there,”” Mercer said. “”It doesn’t actually do anything other than report. If I were a municipality with limited resources, would I not be better putting my money into better monitoring . . . or filters?””

Mercer alluded to the April 2001 cryptosporidium outbreak in North Battleford, Sask. as a case for spending money on filters rather than electronic reporting.

Watertrax is available in 45 states and all Canadian provinces and territories except Quebec. Baisley said the system was designed with the United States market in mind, as regulations south of the border were much tougher than in Canada. But the post-Walkerton regulatory environment is much stronger than before in Canada, especially in Ontario.

“”That switched the focus from the U.S. being a prime market to Canada also being a prime market,”” he said.

Health Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada will begin using the system to monitor water quality in 200 First Nation communities in the next couple of weeks. The Resort Municipality of Whistler, in British Columbia, is also a Watertrax customer.

Baisley said the system is designed mainly for small-to-medium sized municipalities. While it is appropriate for organizations, such as Health Canada, that monitor a number of different water systems, it has less utility for large municipalities that desire their waterworks to handle billing as well as testing.

Rather than expand to encompass areas like billing, Baisley said Watertrax plans to keep its focus on water quality but perhaps increase its offerings to include software to help municipalities with testing on a day-to day basis.

“”As regulations get more and more complex, it can be difficult to know what you’re testing for,”” Baisley said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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