Water systems at risk

Despite an election promise by Justin Trudeau to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves within five years, data suggest the federal government will fall short of the objective without significant changes in its approach to rectifying the problem, Matthew McClearn reports

– Matthew McClearn, originally posted on August 30, 2016


One-third of First Nations people living on reserves use drinking water systems that threaten their health, an investigation by The Globe and Mail has found.

Roughly 57,000 people living on 101 reserves across Canada obtain water from treatment plants and pipe networks the government deem to be “high risk,” an analysis of federal data shows. Although these systems are not necessarily producing unsafe water today – some are, some aren’t – the government fears they could fail under adverse conditions, such as a sudden deterioration in source-water quality. Another 95,000 are served by “medium risk” systems located on 167 reserves.

Combined, that amounts to roughly one-third of the approximately 462,000 people living on reserves – or about 30 communities the size of Walkerton, Ont.

In 2000, bacterial contamination in Walkerton’s water system sickened more than 2,300 people and killed seven. Although the Walkerton tragedy prompted wide-ranging regulatory changes across Canada, this hasn’t resulted in safe water for many reserves. Indeed, many First Nations water systems remain in shambolic condition.

During his election campaign last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves within five years. (Data from this summer show 158 drinking-water advisories were in place in 114 First Nations.) To understand the scope of this undertaking, The Globe pored over federal data and interviewed First Nations water operators and indigenous leaders, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada officials and third-party experts.

Health Canada recommends advisories when microbiological contamination of drinking water is suspected or confirmed and their prevalence has already been widely analyzed. But The Globe also studied an Indigenous and Northern Affairs database called the Integrated Capital Management System, which contains a decade’s worth of risk assessments for individual First Nations water systems across the country. Acquiring it took six months of bureaucratic wrangling, and an appeal to the federal Information Commissioner.

The department’s data suggest that without significant changes to its approach, the federal government risks falling far short of its objective.

How Ottawa determines the risk levels of water systems

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) inspects water systems on most reserves across Canada each year. These inspections produce a risk rating between 1 and 10, expressing an opinion on the likelihood that the system may produce unsafe water under adverse conditions. These ratings are based on five weighted components:

  1. Quality and quantity of source water (10 per cent);
  2. The system’s design (30 per cent);
  3. How well the system is operated and maintained (30 per cent);
  4. Record keeping and reporting (10 per cent);
  5. Operators’ training and certification (20 per cent).

Any system scoring higher than 7 is deemed high risk. According to a 2011 report by Neegan Burnside, an engineering firm retained by the federal government to conduct a national assessment, such systems feature “major deficiencies” in most components. “Issues should be addressed as soon as possible,” the firm recommended. INAC indicates high-risk systems receive more attention and funding. In practice, however, systems may remain in the high-risk category for many years.

Medium-risk systems include those scoring between 4 and 7. These feature major deficiencies in one or two components and minor deficiencies in others. Low-risk systems score below 4 and are considered robust.

Certain problems, such as bacterial levels above regulatory limits, automatically trigger high-risk ranks. Should inspectors believe the calculated score does not adequately reflect their professional opinion, they may assign a higher score.

A high-risk system might be producing safe water at the time of inspection. (Systems producing hazardous water are typically subject to drinking-water advisories.) But high-risk systems are less able to cope with adverse conditions (flooding that contaminates source water, for example), while low-risk systems are better able to compensate.

– Staff

Each year, the department’s engineers and consultants inspect virtually all centralized water systems in First Nations communities. They consider how plants are designed, operators’ training and experience, quality of source water, record keeping and how the plant is being operated and maintained. The resulting data include a risk score between 0 and 10, showing the likelihood of the system producing unsafe water under adverse conditions. Those scoring above 7 are deemed to be “high risk,” and are often (but not necessarily) already subjected to long-standing drinking-water advisories. Systems scoring between 4 and 7 present “medium risk,” and can be seen as future candidates for advisories unless deficiencies are addressed. Systems scoring below 4 are low risk.

The provinces with the largest at-risk populations are Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba.

The good news is that the department’s data show the government has made gradual progress. Average risk scores across all reserves decreased roughly 20 per cent since 2010, from above 5 to about 4.

The department directs resources to the highest-risk water systems. In 2006, for example, it identified 21 reserves with particularly hazardous water systems and secured $60-million over two years from the federal budget to fix them. The average risk score among these reserves fell from about 7 in 2006 to 4.1 today – a significant improvement. (In six communities, the situation remained largely unchanged. Only one got worse.)

The bad news is that new infrastructure takes time. The department says it typically takes three years to move through the design, construction and commissioning stages. And communities can languish many more years on the waiting list.

Marten Falls First Nation in Northern Ontario began campaigning for a new plant after its existing system was slapped with a boil-water advisory in 2005. That advisory remains in effect. Marten Falls sits near the top of the department’s prioritization list, which means a proposed plant is in the design phase. That’s news to Chief Bruce Achneepineskum, who said he has seen no indication the project is moving forward. “There’s no funding of any kind this fiscal year,” he told The Globe. “It’s just an illusion … it’s window dressing.” (The department says Marten Falls must first complete a funding submission.)

But remediating only the worst systems is likely insufficient to eliminate boil-water advisories. Clayton Leonard, a partner with MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman, represents First Nations clients across Western Canada on water issues. He argues Ottawa must address medium-risk systems, too. “Chronic underfunding, undertraining, lack of maintenance is going to put those systems in the high-risk category on the foreseeable horizon,” he said.

Last year, the department said its objective was to increase the proportion of low-risk systems to slightly more than half of the total by 2019. Asked how it plans to achieve the Prime Minister’s new target, department spokespersons said the latest federal budget commits “an additional $1.8-billion over five years, starting in 2016-17.”

Apart from additional spending, it’s difficult to see what’s new in the department’s approach. Although First Nations have long complained of insufficient infrastructure funding, the department’s own data suggest more spending alone won’t suffice. One might expect recently constructed plants to have lower risk scores than ones built during the 1970s and 80s. In fact, systems built in the past 15 years actually have higher average risk scores than ones built in the 1970s that are still in service. The average risk score for the 14 systems constructed on reserves in 2014 was nearly 4.8 – significantly above the national average.

Sometimes those outcomes stem from human factors, which figure prominently in the department’s scoring system. Indeed, 60 per cent of overall risk scores derive from things under operators’ control, such as record keeping and operational practices. Many First Nations plant operators lack the required education and training to meet provincial standards, resulting in higher scores.

Yet the department’s data also raise questions about newly built plants. Of the 14 constructed in 2014, half were slapped with alarmingly high design-risk scores by the department’s own inspectors. The reasons are unclear. Two are on the Cowichan No. 1 reserve on Vancouver Island: Alec Johnnie, operations and maintenance manager for the Cowichan Tribes, said both perform well. The engineer who performed the inspections declined to comment. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada did not respond to requests for comment on the situation.

Mr. Trudeau’s five-year commitment emerged from his conversations last year with Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day. Mr. Day acknowledged the problem’s complexity, but said it’s up to First Nations to keep the government focused. “If you look at the Walkerton crisis in early 2000, it was within a year that 144 municipalities were actually addressed and mitigated so that they wouldn’t have boil-water advisory issues,” he said. “There is no question that the Liberal government can do this.”

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