Water ‘alarmingly’ tainted even on reserves with good treatment plants, study suggests

Nora Whiteway moved up in the world last year.

A water tank was installed at her house on a remote Manitoba First Nations reserve, meaning she no longer had to constantly fetch water from community taps, a task that had given her arthritis.

But she has seen little evidence the tanks — filled by truck every two weeks — are ever cleaned, while many in the community break out in boils they suspect are related to water quality.

“We have no choice but to drink it,” Whiteway said in an interview Sunday from Wasagamack. “But I don’t trust it.”

A newly published study of a reserve in the same Island Lake area suggests she and many others in similar situations are justified being worried.



In this 2015 video, University of Manitoba researchers documented life on remote Wasagamack reserve where many residents have no running water, or sewage system. Credit Dr. Thompson, University of Manitoba


It found “alarmingly high” of fecal bacteria throughout the community’s water system — “far below” the standard expected of a developed country. But unlike scores of other First Nations communities across Canada, the reserve treatment plant worked fine, producing clean, pathogen-free water.

The blame, the University of Manitoba researchers say, lies with an easily – and antiquated — delivery system. That includes the rickety trucks that operate 24 hours a day and are rarely cleaned, leaky holding tanks – known to sometimes contain dead animals as well as water — and open hauled back and forth to communal taps.

In conditions reminiscent of another era, many have no running water, and sometimes just deposit raw sewage in the dump.

The study’s unsettling conclusion? Even when treatment is effective, many reserve residents drink water heavily laced with bugs like E. coli, the same bacteria that triggered a water disaster in , Ont.

“You wonder why in Canada these things are happening,” said Annemieke Farenhorst, the study’s lead author and a University of Manitoba soil-science .

“We’ve landed people on the moon and we’re talking about expanding to other planets, and that’s all feasible. So why can’t we take care of our people in Canada?”

TAMARA KING/Postmedia Network
TAMARA KING/Postmedia NetworkManitoba's Island Lake region of first nations, consisting of Garden Hill, St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack and Red Sucker Lake , is aptly named, as evidenced by this photo from a helicopter.

The federal Liberal government promised to eliminate the need for boil-water advisories on reserves within five years, and has earmarked $1.8 billion for the job, with a focus on treatment systems. A year after the Liberals were elected, First Nations leaders are still pushing for action on the expensive problem.

But Farenhorst says relatively small investments to improve water delivery – such as buying a second truck to allow downtime for cleaning – could improve water safety in many places.

Just 51 per cent of the residents of Manitoba’s reserves have running water piped in directly from their treatment plant, while 13 per cent have their own wells, she said.

Another 31 per cent rely on water delivered by truck to underground like Whiteway’s, and five per cent have to obtain it by filling up buckets at communal standpipes.

The cisterns are generally made of concrete and buried underground, with cracks that let in possibly dirty ground water — and other things, said Farenhorst.

Cleaners find visible debris that sometimes includes animal bodies, said Shirley Thompson, a professor at the University of Manitoba’s natural-resources institute.

Farenhorst’s study in the journal Science of the Total Environment focused on an unnamed reserve on Island Lake, and found water coming out of the treatment plant was free of E. coli and had adequate levels of disinfecting chlorine.

Meanwhile, we have this in First Nations that is very common, like it’s normalized

But samples tested at other points in the system — from the water truck itself, the cisterns, the community standpipe and the buckets residents had in their homes — had too little chlorine to kill bacteria, and unacceptably high levels of E. coli.

Such results pose a “serious threat” to health, the study concludes. When a dangerous strain of E. coli contaminated water in Walkerton 16 years ago, seven people died and more than 2,000 got sick.

Farenhorst noted that a boil-water advisory in Winnipeg last year generated mass anxiety and a 1,000-page report – though it turned out to be a false alarm.

“Meanwhile, we have this situation in First Nations that is very common, and it’s normalized.”

About Tom Blackwell