Aboriginal Affairs (INAC): First Nations water supply “at risk”

by Jon Thompson

for Kenora Daily Miner and News, 19 July 2011

More than a third of First Nations communities in the Treaty 3 area have “high risk” drinking water systems, according to a national report released Friday.

The National Assessment of First Nation Water and Waste-water Systems report produced by Neegan Burnside for the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs found 72 communities (45 per cent) of Ontario First Nations to have high risk systems, including 10 high risk systems in Treaty 3. Additionally, 61 Ontario communities have “medium risk,” water treatment, including nine in Treaty 3.

“These deficiencies may lead to potential health and safety or environmental concerns,” the report reads, addressing the high risk systems. “They could also result in water quality advisories against drinking the water (such as, but not limited to, boil water advisories), repetitive non-compliance with guidelines, and inadequate water supplies. Once systems are classified under this category, regions and First Nations must take immediate corrective action to minimize or eliminate deficiencies.”

To bring to protocol would cost $228 million including $36 million alone for the Treaty 3 communities. To upgrade all recommended services, the cost in Treaty 3 is estimated at $113 million.

Twenty-eight wastewater systems in Ontario (38 per cent) were also identified as “high risk,” including five in Treaty 3.

The report comes on the heels of a July 7 funding announcement to launch a $5 million pilot project to improve First Nations drinking water systems.

On a national basis, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada provides about $40 million annually for the operation and maintenance of water and wastewater systems. The report tallies $750 million in spending since 1995.

Its authors call for a national database and regional management strategies to prioritize and upgrade systems, provide training, develop emergency response plans, standardize policies, and make First Nations “aware of their roles and responsibilities to protect community water and wastewater systems.”

Ministry spokeswoman, Gale Mitchell pointed out high risk systems do not necessarily mean water quality issues are imminent. She echoed the report’s assertions that variations in the quality and quantity of source water, increased design requirements, the premature ageing of systems, the lack of water source protection, and inadequate operator training and qualifications are impediments to water quality across the country.

“I think we believe health and safety issues are very important and providing safe water to First Nations is part of that agenda,” she said, pointing to S-11, draft Senate legislation from the fall of 2010 calling for a framework and national standards for First Nations water supplies. “There’s a regulatory gap on reserves. There’s no question about that.”

Issues vary across the region with communities on Lake of the Woods like Northwest Angle 33B and Wauzhushk Onigum (Rat Portage) facing nearby source challenges while Grassy Narrows, for example, is downriver from the Domtar mill in Dryden.

“We need a lot of work to be done,” said Larry Keewatin Jr. of the treatment plant in Grassy Narrows. “We need a sedimentation tank for sure. I think we’d be able to (bring water to code) if we had the proper stuff.”

Operations and maintenance manager at Washagamis Bay, Vernon Copenace had stern words for what he sees as a culture of disrespect for the environment that causes water contamination.

“Quit mining and selling the water. Quit being so greedy. We need that survive. Quit biting the hand that feeds you. Put that in the news and see what they say.”

For an interactive map of water systems in the region, visit http://maps.google.ca/maps/ms?msa=0&msid=211461320014353099859.0004a85dbdcefae2b5cfe&ie=UTF8&ll=49.385343,-92.907772&spn=2.025342,4.417534

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