First Nations are advancing new water treatment options
By Brittany Boschman, Ethan Butterfield, Morgan Esperance, Theresa Kliem and Kehinde Olalafe
Faced with ongoing boil water alerts, some First Nations in Saskatchewan have begun taking back control over water resources. In the process, they’ve pioneered new treatment processes and technologies that could help resolve water issues across the country.
When Yellow Quill First Nation’s drinking water was declared untreatable, band officials reached out to the Safe Drinking Water Foundation, a Canadian non-governmental organization that at the time was focused on water problems in developing countries.
The foundation’s lead scientist, Hans Peterson, worked with Yellow Quill members from 2002 to 2004 to create the Integrated Biological and Reverse Osmosis Membrane, which uses naturally occurring bacteria to clean the water.
The system went on to help lift more than 20 reported boil water advisories in Saskatchewan.
Water operator Bill Marion works with bio-filters at James Smith Cree Nation. “When push comes to shove, it’s a beautiful system. The cost to operate is very low compared to the conventional treatment,” he says.
IBROM is an alternative to greensand filters that rely on manganese oxide, potassium permanganate and chlorine, sometimes in high doses where the water is particularly murky. Chlorine mixed with organic elements creates trihalomethanes (TMHs), linked the increased risk of bladder and colon cancer, as well as an increased risk of miscarriages in pregnant women.
However, a study published by University of Manitoba researchers in 2020 found the IBROM filter less effective at removing organics than a well-maintained and monitored greensand filter.
Nonetheless, operators we contacted reported positive results with the system. “It’s good stuff – it’s as good as it gets,” says Marion.
David Swift is a contract relief operator at Thunderchild First Nation. Thunderchild had its two plants upgraded in 2011, and are now using a Degremont biological filter.
“I love biological plants. I think they have a very minimal environmental footprint. I think they’re the way of the future,” he says.
Swift says he previously worked at a nearby municipal plant where “they use 10 times the chlorine … than we do here.”
He added, “So, our wastewater has very, very little chlorine in it. So, you’re not dumping a lot of stuff into the sewer system and then back out into the lake, that’s basically like mouthwash.”
There are now nearly 30 Saskatchewan First Nations using the technology developed at Yellow Quill, with more in the works, according to Deon Hassler, a water technician and circuit rider for the File Hills-Qu’Appelle Tribal Council.
Early adopters included Yellow Quill, George Gordon, Whitecap Dakota, Dakota Dunes, Kawacatoose, Poundmaker, Muskeg Lake, Witchikan Lake, Saulteaux, James Smith, Makwa Sahgaiehcan, Shoal Lake, Sturgeon Lake, Mistawasis, Kahkewistahaw, Kinistin and White Bear.
“Bio filtration seems to be spreading across First Nations in Saskatchewan because it’s in line with the worldview of treating water with respect and treating organisms with respect,” says Zagozewski.
“You don’t have to use a lot of chemicals, it’s gentler. When the systems are made properly, they produce amazing water that has the utmost confidence of the operators, that it’s clean and it’s healthy. It tastes good,” she says.
Zagosweski says it was difficult to gain support from the federal government for the alternative systems, because of the upfront cost of transitioning.
“The federal government works with the bottom line. They want to put things in as cheap as they can,” she says. “So initially these biofiltration systems were more expensive, but now they’ve come down in price and they’re actually on par or even less than other treatment systems.”
In addition to being an operator at Saulteaux First Nation, which has biofiltration, Harvey Thomas is the director of technical services for other surrounding First Nations that do not. Thomas notes the hoops First Nation communities need to jump through when dealing with the government.
“If we put in a request for a new water plant, going biological, they have to assess if the community needs a biological system or still green sand filtration. And that’s where the challenge is. It could take up to three years before we’re approved,” Thomas says.
A 2016 email exchange among ISC officials sheds light on funding of biofiltration at another community, Stanley Mission. In that case, a request for biofiltration was considered a “non-standard” system that was ineligible for full funding because it “achieves treated water in excess of the current provincial guidelines.”
The email concluded, “Any system above the minimum will require cost-sharing from the band.”
Ongoing maintenance support can also be difficult to obtain once the system is in place. As well, no matter the filtration system being used, underfunding for staff salaries and training presents a challenge, according to Deon Hassler, a water system trainer and technician for the File Hills-Qu’Appelle Tribal Council. ISC doesn’t provide wage support for trainees, he noted.
Above and beyond
Water operators beat the odds to deliver clean water
By Brittany Boschman, Ethan Butterfield, Morgan Esperance and Theresa Kliem
Video: Water operators voice their struggles and the barriers they have to overcome on a daily basis.
Deon Hassler is a graduate of ISC’s Circuit Rider Training Program, which prepares qualified water operators to circulate among First Nations communities and mentor other water operators. One of his responsibilities is to help community members gain certification.
“We need more money to get these operators certified, because…there’s no money for training these operators until they’re certified,” he says. “So we need money for the new operators, to train them.”
Under the current system, trainees must pass an exam based on a manual that is 780 pages long, with only a few days of study time. “They usually do this training within a week or four days. I don’t really see these people passing it, you know, the first time they write it. So a lot of times they come back and they have to write it six months later,” says Hassler.
He recommends supporting trainees for a full year instead of a few days. “Get them in the water plant, give them the books to read and I come there and I also train with them and review all this training material. And then they can go to the four-day course and write the exam on the fifth day. That way they would have a better chance, because you’ve got that one year,” says Hassler.
Even after successfully passing the course, wages remain low. “In some communities the security guards get paid better than the water plant operator,” says Hassler.
Of eight Saskatchewan First Nations water operators who shared their wage information with our investigation, just one was paid close to the median wage for a water operator in Saskatchewan reported by the Canada Job Bank, $27.60 per hour. The rest were well below, including two who received less than $12 an hour.
The long hours and low pay make it difficult to replace the most experienced operators. Water operator Perry Mcleod from Peepeekisis First Nation does not believe that he will ever be fully retired.
“I’ve been telling my council that I’m ready to retire again and they just, they won’t let me go and I’ll always be in the water plant in some capacity or I’ll always be around,” he says.
Many of the water operators contacted by our investigation spoke of using whatever resources were available to find solutions to their communities’ drinking water woes.
“I can ask for the world, but I’m going to be lucky if I get a slice of cake, but I’m still gonna ask for the world,” says Marnie Francis, water operator for Piapot First Nation.
“There’s nothing to stop me from doing that. But reality is we need to work within what they provide us, what is allotted to us, and then we need to work as a community and as a band, and as an administration to make up the rest.”
The training challenge
Becoming a certified water operator is a difficult job with not many supports along the road, our investigation learned.
To obtain each level for a water operator, starting at Level 1, there is an exam that requires a minimum 70 per cent passing grade. To pursue the next level, on the job time is require to learn the many aspects of treatment plant operation.
When Perry Mcleod began 30 years ago, it was an on-going training process that led him to his multiple certifications.
“It’s almost like a journeyman status,” says Mcleod.
“Now you’ve got to put in hours. You could write the test, but you’re still not a certified operator till you put in a certain amount of hours.”
There are five levels in total: a small systems certificate, and certificates for Levels 1 to 4. Bigger towns and cities usually have water plants that require higher certifications, according to Deon Hassler, a circuit rider trainer with the File Hills-Fort Qu’Appelle Tribal Council. Required work time between levels ranges from six months to four years. The certification level determines pay rate as well, depending on the community budget.
It is a challenge to train new water operators because there is not enough funding for operators to take time off for studies. Hassler’s position allows him to provide appropriate training, courses and support for water operators to obtain higher levels while still working full time and being on call.