To determine whether drinking water contaminated with antimicrobial-resistant E. coli is associated with the carriage of resistant E. coli, selected households sending water samples to Ontario and Alberta laboratories in 2005–2006 were asked to participate in a cross-sectional study. Household members aged ⩾12 years were asked to complete a questionnaire and to submit a rectal swab. In 878 individuals, 41% carried a resistant strain of E. coli and 28% carried a multidrug-resistant strain. The risk of carriage of resistant E. coli was 1·26 times higher for users of water contaminated with resistant E. coli. Other risk factors included international travel [prevalence ratio (PR) 1·33], having a child in nappies (PR 1·33), being male (PR 1·33), and frequent handling of raw red meats (PR 1·10). Protecting private water sources (e.g. by improving systems to test and treat them) may help slow the emergence of antimicrobial resistance in E. coli.