03/14/2013 02:30 EDT | Updated 05/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Most Canadians unaware urban water infrastructure is crumbling: survey

TORONTO - Canadians are largely unaware of the strain placed on municipal water infrastructures across the country and reluctant to pitch in to ease the burden, a poll released Thursday suggests.

An annual survey of Canadian water attitudes, commissioned by the Royal Bank of Canada, found the majority of respondents believe the cities they call home are well able to withstand the demands placed on urban drinking and storm water systems.

But the poll said the view held by 78 per cent of those surveyed is divorced from the reality faced by the majority of Canadian cities.

According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the total price tag to bring Canada's water infrastructures up to scratch hovers around $80 billion.

Bob Sandford, chairman of the Canadian Partnership Initiative of the United Nations Water for Life Decade, said the public knowledge gap is not too surprising given the subtle nature of most infrastructure challenges.

"In many communities infrastructure is underfunded and the systems are 80 years old in some cases," Sandford said in a telephone interview. "They're causing a multitude of issues not immediately associated in the minds of Canadians with water quality and supply."

Sandford said much of the strain on water infrastructure comes from urban development and weather conditions that didn't exist when the systems were first put in place.

The increased frequency of rainy or stormy weather, he said, taxes drainage and sewage systems that are ill-equipped to deal with such high volumes of water.

The issue is complicated by the widespread use of concrete and other surfaces that don't allow water to be absorbed into the ground, he added.

The RBC survey suggested many Canadians are oblivious to the impact such surfaces can have.

The poll found 47 per cent of respondents would like to pave their driveways rather than use interlocking stone, gravel or other more permeable materials that would allow for better water absorption.

When informed that such surfaces reduce the amount of water runoff and ease the burden on drainage systems, only 12 per cent of those surveyed said they'd be willing to consider changing their landscaping preferences at home.

More respondents were willing to undertake household maintenance to lessen the risk of water damage on their own properties, the poll found.

The survey found 64 per cent of participants had plans to maintain eavestroughs and roof downspouts, while 33 per cent hoped to take on landscaping projects to limit flooding.

The survey also highlighted a declining interest in water as a national commodity. About 47 per cent of those who responded ranked water as the country's most important natural resource, down eight per cent from the 2012 poll. Sandford attributes the decline to ongoing economic pressures that raise the profile of more commercially lucrative commodities such as oil.

But that attitude underlies a more disturbing trend, Sandford said, adding Canadians have a global reputation for wasteful water use.

Such profligate use of the resource perpetuates a vicious cycle that only adds to the strain on urban infrastructures, he said.

"We waste enormous amounts of energy treating an moving water to where it can be wasted," he said. "In addition we realize the energy we're using by wasting water is accelerating climate change, which is starting to cause enormous damage to the infrastructure we can't afford to maintain or replace."

The growing prevalence of storms such as hurricane Sandy may force Canadians to revisit their attitudes towards water use and infrastructure maintenance, he said, citing a survey number that suggested 80 per cent of respondents were not willing to open their wallets to pay for system upgrades.

"We're lucky to have systems and have enough prosperity in the past to be able to take our water for granted in the way that we do," Sandford said. "I'm not sure how much longer we'll be able to do that."

The RBC online poll, administered by GlobeScan, surveyed 2,282 adults between Jan. 23 and Feb. 11. The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.