Montreal·CBC Investigates

How Montreal's response to water main breaks stacks up

The way the city of Montreal reacts to water main breaks is much more complicated than how other cities manage their response.

How fast crews react depends on where you live, day of the week

A Montreal firefighter wades through a flooded street after a major water main break in October. (Leah Hendry/CBC)

The way the city of Montreal reacts to water main breaks is much more complicated than how other cities manage their response.

Compared with Toronto, Ottawa and Laval, Montreal has additional layers of bureaucracy that can lead to additional hours of flooding and, ultimately, more damage, a CBC investigation found. 

It's also the only city of the four that doesn't staff a specialized crew to turn off the valves and repair larger pipes on Fridays.

Take a look at how each city is staffed to manage emergency water main breaks:

How Montreal responds

The first responder is always the borough's water main crew. In most cases, it can handle smaller breaks.

In the case of larger breaks involving water pipes more than 16 inches in diameter, the borough is required to call the city's chief engineer. The engineer verifies what valves need to be closed to stop the water.

On the island of Montreal, only seven of the 19 boroughs have both the equipment and training to close those valves.

  • Plateau-Mont-Royal (all diameters)
  • Sud-Ouest (all diameters)
  • Lachine (up to 36")
  • St-Laurent (up to 48")
  • Rivière-des-Prairies–Pointe-aux-Trembles (all diameters)
  • Ahuntsic-Cartierville (up to 48")
  • Hochelaga-Maisonneuve (all diameters)

If the borough doesn't have its own equipment, or the break is more complex, the city's water department is called in.

The city's maintenance and valve team is made up of 33 blue-collar workers.

They have the equipment and training to close valves of any size. This team, as per their collective agreement, only works Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The rest of the time, they are on-call.

Montreal is more complicated than other cities because it has both borough-based water crews and a central city crew.

In other cities, there are crews per district, but it's all centralized by the main water department.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said improvements are always being made, but he thinks the city is doing a better job of getting rid of silos.

"In the past, you had the sidewalks who were doing their job and then the water and then the water management and then the infrastructure," said Coderre.

"Now everyone is talking to one another."

But Projet Montreal leader Luc Ferrandez says the work is still far from centralized. Just getting an engineer to sign off on the right water shutdown plan can take hours, especially when the call comes in after hours. 

"Interruption plans should be available within one hour," said Ferrandez.

"Either have the employee available, on a pager, that's able to access the network mapping from home, or he's at work, it's one or the other."

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Leah Hendry


Leah Hendry is an investigative reporter with CBC in Montreal. She specializes in health and social issues. She has previously worked as a reporter for CBC in Vancouver and Winnipeg. You can email story ideas or tips to