TAKING A HARD LOOK AT WATER QUALITY IN FIRST NATIONS COMMUNITIES
By Michelle Lerat, Donovan Maess, Julia Peterson and Dawson Thompson
An investigation by a national consortium of universities and media companies found that despite the federal government budgeting over $2 billion over the past five years for eliminating long-term boil water advisories, nearly half of First Nations we contacted are unable to consistently deliver safe drinking water to homes.
The federal government’s target was to end 105 long-term boil water advisories by March 2021, yet 57 advisories remain in place as of late February.
In an emailed response, Leslie Michelson, spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), attributed this to a combination of additional advisories and shifting advisory lift dates, caused by factors like delayed parts, inclement weather, difficulties coordinating with contractors and operational issues.
Graphic: ISC website Feb. 22, 2021
Michelson also named COVID-19 as a cause for delays to the federal government’s commitment to improve drinking water quality for First Nations communities.
However, our investigation found the process had stalled out well before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. The 2019 federal budget projected 24 of a total 62 advisories would be lifted that year. By years’ end, 61 communities remained under long-term alerts, just one fewer.
As well, communities with upgraded systems still face barriers to delivering clean water. In Saskatchewan, our investigation surveyed water operators at 16 First Nations treatment plants and found the federal initiative has left treatment plants ill-equipped to keep upgrades maintained and operational over the long term.
Of the five newer treatment plants recently built in the surveyed communities, operators at three said it costs more to run the plant now than it did before. As well, long hours and low wages make it difficult to replace experienced retirees.
new plants, old problems
Of operators we spoke to at plants constructed in the last five years, 60 per cent had already experienced a boil-water advisory in the past year, compared to just 33 per cent of plants over 16 years old.
“I find that a lot of times it seems like the Feds will build a lovely plant, but they don’t realize that the nicer the plant is, and the more up-to-date it is, the more money it will cost them to run it, you know?” says David Swift, an independent contractor who does relief work for Thunderchild First Nation’s plant.
“It costs us $100 a month on each one of our plants for the online monitoring systems. Our pumps are a little more expensive than some of the ones in older plants. Our electronic controls are expensive. And if we have problems with them, then they are expensive to replace,” he says.
At Nekaneet First Nation, it’s been a struggle to keep a seven-year-old plant up and running.
“There is no money to buy one of those (water pumps) and have it sitting around the corner for when it does go down, and they do go down,” says Tim O’Flannigan, who does project management work for Nekaneet. “There’s no money for that stuff.”
O’Flannigan says the Nation had a budget of $1.2 million to build a plant, but when they tendered construction the lowest bid was over $2 million.
To fill in the gap, his project team hired locally to pour concrete and build the building, contracting out specialized work like electrical systems and filtration.
Still there were cost overruns and malfunctions, including problems with the two reverse osmosis membranes that O’Flannigan doubts were necessary because of the purity of the source water.
The Nation is located in the Cypress Hills, an area known for aquifer-fed springs used by Indigenous people for millennia.
“If it’s good spring water, you shouldn’t have to worry about putting chemicals in there,” says Alice Pahtayken, Elder and former Chief.
Several Nekaneet members we spoke with questioned plant construction over other community priorities, such as a firetruck and housing repairs.
A 2016 ISC email obtained through freedom of information appears to support community sentiment.
“Sometimes these membrane technologies are implemented in communities that do not need them, or their water quality is not bad enough to require membranes,” wrote Sara El-Kady, senior civil/environmental engineer for the First Nation Inuit and Metis Health Branch, in response to a request for input on filtration methods at Stanley Mission.
The email, written to an ISC infrastructure planning team, adds, “Membranes are expensive and difficult to operate, and if not maintained properly can permanently fail. There is a concern with keeping certified operators at level to operate these systems, as well as having a backup operator knowledgeable enough to operate the system in the event that the main certified operator is not present.”
Tests submitted by our investigation to an independent lab revealed no appreciable difference between untreated and treated water at Nekeneet, other than the treated water showing slightly elevated chlorination byproducts, which can cause long-term health concerns if left unchecked.
Council member Doreen Oakes says she doesn’t drink the treated tap water, preferring to drive to the town of Maple Creek to buy spring water bottled at a local ranch.
Plant operator Courteney Taypotat says although community members complain, “That’s what the government wants … So that’s what we’ve got to do.”
“I was very mad when they built that new water treatment plant,” said band manager Selena Taypotat.
related needs short-changed
In the best-case scenario, eliminating all long-term BWAs on reserves by 2021 would cost $3.1 billion, the PBO concluded. A worst-case scenario would cost just over $6 billion.
Beyond specific water needs, First Nations interviewees told our investigation that related infrastructure like fire protection, roads, housing upgrades and a steady supply of electricity are necessary to end boil water advisories.
For example, Piapot First Nation’s plant was destroyed by fire in 2018 after fire agencies in surrounding towns didn’t respond to calls for help from the First Nation.
The plant has been rebuilt, but the Nation’s fire protection agreement is with a town over an hour away, leaving the new plant just as vulnerable. Three First Nations treatment plants have burned down in Saskatchewan since 2010.
At Cowessess First Nation, power outages present a problem, according to plant operator Ira Aisaican.
“Once the power goes out at any given time, if it’s held for any length of time, 10 minutes, half an hour, whatever, we are on a precautionary boil water advisory,” he says.
“We could have three power outages in a year sometimes.”
According to Michelson, ISC has budgeted $605.6 million to be spent on operations and maintenance of water and wastewater infrastructure in First Nations communities over the next four years. This amount will be funded by the Canadian government.
“These investments will help ensure that First nations infrastructure is better supported throughout its lifespan,” Michelson wrore in an email, adding that funding allocations will be determined in partnership with First Nations communities.
Michelson said initiatives are underway to address the remaining long-term water advisories.
“We continue to work in partnership with First Nations communities by supporting them to build, repair and enhance water and wastewater infrastructure that will ensure clean drinking water is accessible to all,” Michelson wrote.
Michelson added the Canadian government is “providing sustainable investments” to prevent short-term advisories, improve retention of local water operators and support regular monitoring and testing of water in First Nations communities.
Michelson reported $2.43 billion had been spent as of June 30, 2020 by the federal government funding for water and wastewater operations in First Nations communities as well as capital infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, people like Cowessess First Nation member Wes Lerat remain doubtful of official statements that problems are being resolved.
“They tell us it’s good to drink, but when I see the film it leaves on the pots … I don’t want it leaving that inside me, you know,” he says.
“When I was a child I remember pumping water from the well and drinking it directly from the bucket. We don’t do that now,” says Lerat. “I don’t like that our water is not as clean as it used to be, but I take it as a sign of the times, a sad sign of the times.”
Recommendations versus reality
The last available public assessment of First Nations water systems was conducted in 2011. This map show where drinking water was at risk, and where federal funding was targeted in 2015.
Map by Shayla Sayer-Brabant
The table below shows what funding was needed to bring Saskatchewan First Nations water and wastewater treatment plants up to standard, according to a federally-commissioned review conducted in 2011, known at the Neegan Burnside Report. According to the review, Saskatchewan alone needed nearly $1 billion in infrastructure improvements.