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Thirsting for Solutions

Drinking water quality and access problems facing First Nations communities in Canada.

As of June 2012, there were 146 First Nations communities in Canada under a long-term Drinking Water Advisory. Drinking Water Advisories are created when the water in a community is deemed unacceptable based on the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines which set basic parameters for clean, safe drinking water. A long-term drinking water advisory is one that has remained in place for at least one year. Some of these communities had been living under an advisory for over 20 years. First Nations communities are disproportionately affected by water quality problems as a result of longstanding water resource management issues and colonial practices of the province. The federal government has a goal to end all long-term drinking water advisories on public systems on reserves by March 2021. Since November 2015, 88 have been lifted, however 61 remain. The poor water quality causing these drinking water advisories can be due to naturally occurring substances in source water, water contamination by industry and agriculture, and climate change. This article summarizes the issues facing three First Nations communities in Canada about the safety of their drinking water: the Chippewas of the Thames, Attawapiskat, and Chippewas of Nawash. These communities were selected due to the vast differences in their source water, quality issues, and challenges to obtain access to safe, clean drinking water.

The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation

The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation is located 25 km southwest of London, ON close to the west banks of the Thames River. The Thames River is of cultural, livelihood and historical significance and is a major feature in terms of hydrology as it impacts the water table in the flood plains. The water supply in Chippewas of the Thames is considered as Wellhead Protection Area-E based on evaluation methodologies outlined in Ministry of Environment technical rules for municipal Groundwater systems that are Under the Direct Influence (GUDI) of surface water. The Chippewas of the Thames’ water intake comes from an underground infiltration trench located within the floodplain of Thames River, treated and disinfected using ultraviolet light and chlorine. This infiltration trench is considered a GUDI system, which are commonly known as surface water sources for water treatment and protection. Based on this unique feature of the water supply, monitoring the surface water is essential to detect and prevent contaminants and preserve the quality of the groundwater. Since the groundwater bed is close to the surface water, when the surface water is contaminated, there is high likelihood of groundwater contamination as well.

Over the years, surface water quality has continued to deteriorate due to various agricultural activities in the First Nations community. Recent monitoring efforts carried out in the community revealed that the water quality at the Chippewas of the Thames was graded C indicating low aesthetic quality, with high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and elevated biological oxygen demand resulting from agricultural activities, storm water outfalls and wastewater treatment plant discharge from upstream communities. To abate these potential water quality problems, regular monitoring of the surface water passing through the community is essential. Furthermore, investigating the effects of land use on the Chippewas of the Thames’ water quality is desirable to propose best management practices.

Attawapiskat First Nation

Attawapiskat First Nation is a community in Northern Ontario with a history of drinking water problems. Their community has two sources for water; a reverse-osmosis purification system with two taps where residents can fill up jugs and bring drinking water to their homes, and heavily chlorinated lake water that can be used for cooking, cleaning and bathing. In July 2019, high levels of toxic disinfection by-products and chemicals from over-chlorinating water that is high in organics were found in both water sources. While organic matter is found in all surface and groundwater and has no direct impact on the consumer’s health, it affects water treatment processes and the resultant safety of drinking water. When a source water is high in organics, the disinfection ability for chlorine is lessened. As a result, more chlorine needs to be added to the water, and disinfection by-products can develop.

Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency in July 2019; residents were told to drink only bottled water, and not to use the other water for cooking or bathing as disinfection byproducts can get into the air, and boiling the water does not clear them. Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services promised a new water treatment system but did not give a timeline or dollar amount other than $1.5 million for temporary measures allowing residents access to safe drinking, cooking and bathing water. There is a long list of repairs before the water will be safe for the community, including changing the source water from the lake to the lower in organics Attawapiskat River. Attawapiskat is not currently considered to be under a long-term drinking water advisory.

The Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation

The Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation has a population of 816 (2009) and is in Southern Ontario on the eastern shore of the Bruce Peninsula, about 26 km from Wiarton. The community has been under a boil water advisory since January 21, 2019 and the Government of Canada has set a resolution date of March 2021. Drinking water is delivered to residents either via the distribution system from the existing Water Treatment Plant (WTP) on Georgian Bay, trucked delivery to cisterns, or private wells. Marshall et. al. (2019) showed that groundwater quality of wells have been impacted at various depths by septic systems on the reserve. This groundwater contamination results from the aging septic systems and lagoons leaching their contents into the groundwater and contaminating the water being pumped from nearby wells. Fresh water aquifers that are near the surface and below fractured rock are particularly vulnerable. This is because the contaminants can travel rapidly through the few fractures in this formation instead of being given the necessary time to be filtered out as they would be through a finer subsurface. This kind of near-surface formation is found along the Bruce Peninsula and makes this area one of the most vulnerable to bacterial groundwater contamination in southern Ontario.

The Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation continues to await a permanent fix that will ensure clean drinking water is provided to all members of the community. The current solution is the construction of a new WTP that began on September 23, 2020; however, completion of the WTP construction is not expected until 2023, long after the Liberal government’s target for all boil water advisories to be resolved. Interim measures will continue to operate until this is resolved and alternative wastewater treatment technologies should be explored for communities such as these to address the vulnerability that the region has to groundwater contamination.

Historically, First Nations peoples have been excluded from decision-making and this colonialist legacy has reshaped and degraded waterscapes and landscapes across the nation.

The water quality of the communities discussed, and First Nations across Canada are disproportionately threatened in various ways from different sources such as GUDI, over-chlorinated water and septic system leaching. Each community requires different solutions in overcoming the various water quality issues. WTPs are often the proposed solution as in the case of Attawapiskat and Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nations. For Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, constant monitoring of surface water quality is required, and implementing best management practices to reduce agricultural pollutant is recommended. However, these solutions are often technocratic and lack community engagement as discussed by Baijius and Patrick in “We Don’t Drink the Water Here”. Historically, First Nations peoples have been excluded from decision-making and this colonialist legacy has reshaped and degraded waterscapes and landscapes across the nation. The result of marginalization has often limited solutions to maintenance of outdated infrastructure and inappropriate land uses. Innovative and appropriate technologies may be a part of the solution if suitable for the challenges a community faces, but ultimately, recognizing and overcoming the persisting power imbalance and exclusion of Indigenous communities will allow for more sustainable solutions to emerge. 

This article is part of our March 2021 Western Student Editorial Series – a series that showcases the works of students in the Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability program. Read more articles from this series here!

Munirat is a graduate from Civil and Environmental Engineering, Western University with MEng in 2019. She is currently a graduate student in Chemistry at Western University under the supervision of Prof Giovanni Fanchini. Her current research interest lies within fabricating chemi-resistor devices as sensors to detect heavy metals and hydrocarbon in water bodies.

James graduated from Western University in 2019 with a B.E.Sc. in Civil and Environmental Engineering with the International Development option. He decided to join the RESTORE group starting in September 2019 and pursue an M.E.Sc. in Civil and Environmental Engineering under the supervision of Dr. Clare Robinson. James’ research involves numerical modelling of the variable density groundwater-coastal water system with the effects of storm surges, sea-level rise, and anthropogenic impacts and developing an understanding of the system dynamics.

Hailey completed a Bachelor’s in Green Process Engineering from Western University in 2019 and is currently pursuing a Master of Chemical Engineering, with a specialty in Environment and Sustainability. Her research focuses on the use of silicates as an environmentally-conscious corrosion control option for lead. Outside of academia, Hailey loves camping, hiking, cycling and being outside.