A Globe review shows water treatment plants are failing on reserves across Canada. For every system the government fixes, plenty remain in a shambolic state
Several days each week last fall, water trucks left Sudbury and drove 130 kilometres west to the Serpent River First Nation, a reserve on Lake Huron’s north shore. There, they emptied about 18,000 litres into a reservoir to supplement the community’s water treatment plant. John Owl, the plant operator, said it ran 24 hours a day and still could not provide enough water to meet the needs of the reserve’s 350 inhabitants. Not that they could drink it – it is subject to a drinking water advisory.
A snowstorm in December shut the Trans-Canada Highway, blocking the water shipments. A pipe ruptured in the crawlspace of an abandoned home, draining about four truckloads of water. And as temperatures dropped, the plant’s output fell. “As the water gets colder, it gets denser and it’s harder to push through the filters,” Mr. Owl explained.
Serpent River’s woes resemble those of the 90 other Canadian reserves under drinking-water advisories. But there is a cruel twist: This water treatment plant is barely a year old. It is a small yet impressive modern facility, a bewildering but orderly arrangement of pumps, piping and gauges.
Diagnosing what went wrong is difficult. But this is no anomaly.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, a federal government department, pays for virtually all on-reserve infrastructure, and sets most of the rules for the design and construction of these water treatment plants. To understand INAC’s role, The Globe and Mail studied federal reports, pored over documents obtained under Access to Information laws and interviewed project managers, engineering consultants and First Nations leaders.
The Globe’s research, which began last summer, found that one-third of First Nations had systems that were at medium or high risk of producing unsafe water, according to INAC’s assessment criteria. Among Canada’s 600-plus reserves are numerous examples of failed water-treatment plants, water towers and other infrastructure. Some were undersized or poorly designed. Others used inappropriate technology. Still others failed prematurely because they were not properly maintained.
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