Federal Budget promises better access to safe water on reserves
by Wendy Stueck, originally published on March 24, 2016
People in B.C.’s Lytton First Nation have grown accustomed to boil-water advisories for at least several months every year.
This year, however, they’re hoping there won’t be any – thanks to a treatment system installed last year through a group called Res’eau-WaterNet, a federally funded research program that links researchers and industry partners to remote and rural communities.
Launched first as a mobile pilot project, Lytton’s system – which uses filters, activated carbon, ultraviolet light and some chlorine to remove contaminants from water – was installed in a small, permanent facility last May.
“It provides our community with excellent drinking water so they no longer have to buy it from other sources,” Lytton First Nations operations manager Jim Brown said in a recent interview.
“They use their water right from the tap.”
That privilege, taken for granted by most Canadians, is not shared by residents of many First Nations communities across the country.
In B.C., as of March 22, there were 27 drinking water advisories for First Nations communities, including 22 boil-water advisories and five do-not-consume advisories, according to the First Nations Health Authority. Those advisories involve water systems that serve as few as a dozen people, as well as larger networks that serve up to 700.
Outside B.C., there were 135 drinking water advisories in effect in 86 First Nations communities in the rest of the country as of Jan. 31 of this year, according to Health Canada.
In the wake of a federal budget that set aside millions of dollars to improve access to drinking water, Res’eau-WaterNet’s approach could attract more attention.
Along with technical expertise, the project involves what it calls a “community circle approach” – working with communities to determine technical requirements and local capacity to maintain and run a new system.
“In the case of Lytton, listening extensively to the band members and working closely with the water operators, along with detailed information obtained on the quality of the raw water, helped us select the most feasible and yet optimum treatment system that the operators felt comfortable working with,” Madjid Mohseni, Res’eau-WaterNet’s scientific director, wrote recently in an e-mail.
“During our pilot work … the operators got the necessary hands-on training and were able to establish whether they could operate the system,” added Dr. Mohseni, who is also a chemical and biological engineering professor at the University of British Columbia.
The Lytton First Nation had previously been quoted a price of more than $1-million to upgrade its water treatment facilities. The Res’eau system was implemented for less than half that, including research costs, Dr. Mohseni said.
Last week’s federal budget included $1.8-billion over five years, beginning in 2016-17, to strengthen reserve-water and waste-water infrastructure and to end long-term boil-water advisories on reserves within five years.
In B.C., water advisories for aboriginal communities are monitored by the First Nations Health Authority, which took over responsibility for First Nations health care in the province in 2013 and tracks water quality in 201 communities.
Health Canada used to post information for B.C. First Nations drinking water advisories and still does for other provinces, but the FNHA does not post such information on its website. The agency provided a list on request.
One entry on that list likely requires updating: a boil-water advisory for the Esk’etemc community near Williams Lake.
Esk’etemc Chief Charlene Belleau says a new $3.4-million water treatment plant opened this week, shortly after the opening of a new school.
“We were lucky to get two major capital projects in one year – but the water treatment plant is completed now and we are off the boil-water advisory,” Ms. Belleau said.
“The impact is great – for a number of years, people could not drink the water here. The water treatment plant provides them with clean drinking water. For our community, it was a big thing.”