Ontario municipalities are facing a deadline. Under provincial Regulation 588/17, they must have an asset management policy in place by July 2019, followed by targets for Levels of Service by July 2021. These requirements makes good business sense.

To manage infrastructure appropriately, you need to know what you have and what condition it’s in. An asset management plan allows you to predict when your infrastructure will need maintenance or should be replaced, so you can budget accordingly, rather than face unpleasant surprises.

“It’s always better to be prepared from an engineering point of view but also from a financing point of view,” says Anelisa Schmidt, who worked for eight years as a water utility project manager before undertaking a master’s degree at the University of Waterloo, where she is studying asset management readiness.

Proactive management is especially important when it comes to water and wastewater infrastructure. “They’re not small projects, so we have to plan well in advance,” Schmidt explains. To accomplish this, municipalities need to go beyond having a plan: they need to establish a policy and a process for integrating asset management into decision-making.

Anelisa Schmidt

However, it’s not a simple task. Water and sewer pipelines are underground, making it difficult to assess their condition. Many were constructed more than half a century ago, often without records of their material, their diameter or even their exact location.

But getting asset management right in Ontario is more important than ever. Municipalities are grappling with aging infrastructure that didn’t receive adequate maintenance from 1976–2000, thanks to underinvestment from provincial governments of every stripe. Meanwhile, many communities are growing, increasing pressure on existing pipes and treatment plants.

There’s a lot at stake. Water and wastewater infrastructure provides essential services and represents nearly half of municipal assets in Ontario. In addition, when owners and operators have good asset management processes in place, it is more likely they’ll be in a position to consider innovative approaches and technologies.

That’s why Schmidt and her supervisor, civil engineering professor Mark Knight, set out to assess how well Ontario municipalities are doing when it comes to asset management process implementation.

With support from the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Advancement of Trenchless Technologies and the Southern Ontario Water Consortium (SOWC), they sent out a 54-question survey to municipal asset managers in 2018.

The 31 responses — from municipalities large and small across the province, representing more than half of Ontario’s population — revealed some encouraging trends.

All of the large municipalities surveyed had an asset management plan in place, as did 86 per cent of small municipalities and 84 per cent of medium-sized municipalities. That’s more than double the rate of their counterparts across the rest of Canada, according to Statistics Canada. “The regulations that the Province implemented are really making a difference here,” says Schmidt.

Mark Knight

That said, the survey revealed some significant shortfalls. Nearly a third of respondents don’t yet have a policy in place, as required by Regulation 588/17, that specifies how their asset management plan will be considered when they develop municipal budgets and long-term financial plans.

On top of that, more than half don’t have a process to monitor implementation of their plan, and most managers in charge of asset management don’t have clearly defined responsibilities. Meanwhile, 30 per cent of small and medium municipalities in Ontario don’t have a process to identify gaps in the funding required to manage their infrastructure in the coming years.

The survey also revealed a lack of service level definitions — for example, specifying how many water main breaks per 100 kilometres of pipe each year is considered acceptable. Almost a third of small municipalities and half of medium-sized municipalities don’t currently include these in their asset plans, although they will be required by 2021.

Finally, roughly 40 per cent of municipalities haven’t factored climate change into their asset planning, despite the fact that extreme weather poses a serious risk to water treatment. For example, recent floods in Ottawa threatened road access to one of the city’s water filtration plants — the only way to deliver chemicals required to purify drinking water. “We have to be prepared for that,” says Schmidt.

Schmidt and Knight used the survey results to rank respondents on a scale of readiness from zero (“not aware”) to five (“continuously improving”). Water utilities in large urban areas are approaching level one or moving towards level two. Small and medium communities lag a little behind, with most on their way towards level one. Which illustrates a very important gap: while the majority of municipalities have an asset management plan, most are at the very early stages of establishing asset management processes and integrating this into decision-making.

Given that the requirements under Regulation 588/17 only start coming into effect this year, it’s not surprising there’s still progress to be made. “Water utilities in Ontario are just starting their asset management journey,” Schmidt and Knight write in their survey report, Water and Wastewater Asset Management Readiness Assessment.

They plan to repeat the survey every two years to measure progress, using the 2018 data as a benchmark.

“I think the main goal here — and what I hope happens — is just to bring awareness around these practices,” says Schmidt. She also believes the results can help inform provincial policies and guidelines, highlighting the value of sustained support and funding for asset management programs.