The parliamentary budget officer says the federal government would need to increase planned spending to provide clean drinking water in First Nations.
Yves Giroux’s report on Wednesday said the government has set aside more than enough money to meet the expected capital costs to build water and wastewater systems over the next five years.
Where the government falls short is to help First Nations operate the systems, which Giroux’s office estimates would need $138 million more annually in federal funding.
The budget officer’s report warns that not spending enough, and not spending it on time, could increase the bill to provide water and wastewater services on reserves comparable to non-First Nations communities of the same size.
The report said “a low investment rate or a significant delay in the investment completion” could mean systems deteriorate faster than expected, “costing more money and risking service disruption.”
The Liberals had promised in their successful 2015 election campaign to end all boil-water advisories in First Nations within five years of taking office, a timeline that was supposed to be met this year.
But the government last year said the target wouldn’t be met, pointing to the pandemic among a variety of other factors in its way.
The latest federal figures show that 119 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted since November 2015, with 43 remaining in 31 communities with federally supported systems.
“We have to be truthful with our timelines to Canadians who are looking for answers,” said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller. “But behind all that is the resolve of this government to continue investing in essential water and essential assets in communities.”
He also said homegrown solutions to train local Indigenous people to run water plants and working with First Nations on plans are as important as funding.
The PBO report also notes that the share of water systems deemed to be “high” or “medium” risk — meaning they are unlikely to manage through any problems — has remained virtually the same since 2015 despite annual federal spending more than doubling during that time.
The government says it takes time to improve systems, years in some cases to plan, design and build them, so changes to levels of risk may be more gradual than dramatic.