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A man pretends to drink water out of a fire hydrant while his friend, not seen, takes a picture in Montreal on May 22, 2013. Montreal has issued a boil-water advisory to a large swath of the city affecting over one million residents after a water-filtration station broke down.PAUL CHIASSON/The Canadian Press

Montrealers have become wearily accustomed to murky matters emanating from city hall, but now the dirt is coming straight out of their taps.

In an extraordinary warning, 1.3 million residents in and around Montreal were told their tap water was unsafe to drink, further eroding the public's trust in the stewardship of a city mired in infrastructure woes and corruption scandals.

The city's boil-water advisory fell as hundreds and thousands of households and businesses opened their taps to find yellow-brownish water flowing out. Within hours, grocery stores saw runs on bottled water, hospitals went into emergency mode and confidence in the solidity of the city's infrastructure eroded yet again.

"It's another blow," said restaurateur Alexandre Wolosianski after his staff raced out to Costco to buy 50 large containers of water to supply his bustling downtown eatery, the Dominion Square Tavern. In the morning, his cooks called him to report the tap water was yellowish. "Not many Montrealers are proud of their city right now. It already feels like our infrastructure is outdated. Now this."

The problem was traced to a crucial filtration plant in southwest Montreal that supplies drinking water to nearly the entire island. According to city officials, workers doing routine upgrade work at the century-old Atwater plant – the largest in Quebec and second biggest in Canada – lowered water levels in a major reservoir. For reasons that remain unclear, levels fell so low that sediment at the bottom was stirred up; it then entered the city's water-distribution system.

Officials say they do not believe the water is tainted by harmful bacteria and issued the advisory as a precaution. However, the warning remains in effect for at least 24 hours while tests are carried out. In the meantime, residents are being warned to boil water at least a minute before using it to drink, wash fruits and vegetables or brush their teeth.

"What is extraordinary is the scale of the water-boil advisory, which touches an enormous number of districts … and the public," said Chantal Morissette, director of Montreal's water supply service.

Montreal's communications didn't help. The news reached many Montrealers after they had had their morning coffee and brushed their teeth. Then the city of Montreal's Web pages dealing with the problem were down until the afternoon. City communications staff were unable to provide information to reporters all day, and institutions such as daycares and schools said they were told of the warning hours after the fact.

The boil-water dictum was unprecedented in its breadth. It applied to a vast swath of the island of Montreal south of the expressway known popularly as the Metropolitan, from the partly industrial borough of Saint Laurent in the west to the very eastern tip of the island, along with bedroom communities like Westmount and Mount Royal and the entire central core of the city.

In response, schools phoned parents to tell them to put bottled water in their children's lunchboxes on Thursday. Some cafés ceased dispensing coffee, dentists cancelled appointments, and hospitals applied emergency protocols. At the McGill University Health Centre, water fountains and ice machines were shut down and patients at the Montreal Children's Hospital were given sponge baths with purified water.

"This is considered a crisis. We do not want to see any patients infected or sick. The hospital is taking things very seriously," MUHC spokeswoman Isabelle Malboeuf said.

The Twittersphere was awash in sarcastic comments about the city's latest mishap, which came just one day after the city suffered its seventh system-wide Métro outage in a year. Liberal MP Denis Coderre, who announced he is running for mayor in the November city election, seemed to take an ironic look at the water problem through his considerable Twitter following.

"Today (is) International Day for Biological Diversity," he tweeted. "The theme this year: Access to drinking water."


Public-health authorities issue boil-water advisories when drinking water has been compromised and tap water is unsafe to drink. Here are three recent urban water alerts in Canada, their causes and the number of people affected.

Two million

Residents from the North Shore to Langley, B.C., were affected after a severe storm caused mudslides into the North Shore reservoirs, resulting in discoloured water in November, 2006. It was considered the largest single urban advisory ever made in Canada.

1.3 million

Residents across a swath of Montreal – mainly south of the expressway know as the Metropolitan – were told to boil water after a failed test at a crucial municipal filtration plant. The advisory was precautionary, and will be in effect for 24 hours.

40,000 to 200,000

Residents of Prince Albert, Sask., went without safe tap water for six weeks in February, 2012, after a faulty valve at the water-treatment plant resulted in untreated river water entering the water distribution system. Tests revealed the presence of giardia and cryptosporidium, which can cause gastrointestinal illness.

Source: Bob Brouse, The Water Chronicles