Montreal is trying to fix its decrepit water system. It won't be easy

Every year, more than 30 per cent of Montreal's drinking water doesn't make to the taps due to leaks and breaks in pipes reaching the end of their lifespan. The City of Montreal is trying to tackle to problem.

A third of Montreal's drinking water is lost due to breaks and leaks in old pipes, but less is lost each year

Water main breaks and leaks cost the city 180 million cubic metres in lost treated water in 2016. By 2017, after pipes were repaired or replaced, that figure improved to 165 million cubic metres. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

With 4,370 kilometres of pipes carrying clean water across the island, Montreal's water main network is one of the largest in Canada.

At least a third of those pipes, though, have reached the end of their lifespan, and another third will by 2020.

For years, the city has been trying to tackle the problem, but the Plante administration has stressed urgency and made replacing the aging water infrastructure a priority.

The city increased the water tax for homeowners in last year's budget to help pay for the improvements.

​"Probably since the Olympics, it's the first time that Montreal will repair more pipes this year," said Sylvain Ouellet, the executive committee member in charge of water infrastructure.

Construction workers on the Laurier Avenue work site recently discovered a pipe that dated back to 1895.

Taking on the leaks

As head of Montreal's water services since 2011, Chantal Morissette is well aware of the issues.

With investments both from the previous Coderre administration and the current one, positive changes are being noted.

"The indicator that we use is the number of times that the pipe has broken. This is the main indicator of the service that we offer the population," said Morissette.

In 2011, there were 29 breaks per kilometre of pipe. Seven years later, it's down to 20 breaks.

A pipe dating back to 1895 was found during work on Laurier Avenue. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Another indicator that is monitored is how much drinking water Montreal produces each year. 

"We are renewing a lot of our drinking water pipes, so there are less leaks in the system," said Morissette.

In 2016, the city lost 180 million cubic metres of water to leaks.

One year later, after repairs and replacement of water mains, the amount of water lost was down to 165 million cubic metres — an improvement that allowed the city to treat 3.5 per cent less water last year, a total of 588 million cubic litres.

Morissette says that in her industry, that is a vast improvement.

"If you look at the past 10 years, we are producing 20 per cent less water."

Cost to taxpayers

Doing all of this work is expensive. When the Plante administration released its 2018 budget, it received a lot of criticism for a 1.1 per cent hike in the so-called water tax.

At the time, Mayor Valérie Plante justified the increase by calling the necessary infrastructure work a game of catchup.

According to her administration, the city is facing a $3.5-billion water infrastructure maintenance deficit. An estimated 11 per cent of the city's $30 billion in assets require major investments in the short term.

This year, $538 million was set aside for water infrastructure work. Similar amounts are earmarked for the next three years.

"We need to invest a lot in water infrastructure," Ouellet said. 

"Not only in our pipes, but in our pumps, in our reservoirs, in our treatment plants. And it's all those investments that the Plante administration want to do and is doing right now."


  • An earlier version of this story stated that in 2016, the city needed to produce 180 million cubic metres of water to meet its needs, which improved to 165 million cubic metres in 2017. In fact, those amounts represent how much water was lost to leaks in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
    May 14, 2018 6:03 PM ET


Sarah Leavitt


Sarah Leavitt is a multimedia journalist with CBC who loves hearing people's stories. Tell her yours: or on Twitter @SarahLeavittCBC.


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