Safe drinking water highlighted at Nelson workshop
As many as 1,800 homes and businesses in the region draw their water from small independent systems. And at any one time, about one in six of them are drinking unsafe water on boil water advisories.
That was the bad news delivered at a Small Water Users workshop held in Nelson on October 9.
The good news is that Interior Health is about to adopt a new approach to help people make their drinking water safe according to Canadian Drinking Water guidelines.
“We can do better,” Ivor Norlin, manager of infrastructure programs for Interior Health, told the meeting. “We need to raise awareness, skills and capacity.”
Norlin was one of a half dozen speakers at the annual Small Water Users Association all-day workshop that focused on water quality updates, government programs, funding, services for small water users and options for small ground and surface water systems.
“There are barriers in the community and until these are addressed, we will see no improvement ,” said Norlin.
Serious concern for drinking water quality came to a head in 2001 when drinking water supplies were contaminated in Walkerton, Ontario and North Battleford, Saskatechewan, by E.coli and cryptosporidium respectively.
Seven people died in Walkerton, no one died in North Battleford. Thousands, however, were ill in both communities and millions of dollars in damages paid out.
As a result, in 2008, the Ombusdsperson of BC issued a directive that Boil Water Advisories in BC should be reduced by 10 percent per year.
“We are knocking them off slowly,” Nolin said. “They have been dropping by 6 percent per year.”
But instead of a heavy hand — which could bring Orders and heavy fines to those who ignore Boil Water Advisories — Nolin said IH wants to work with waters users to help them reach safe drinking water levels.
“Threatening won’t work. Every water system is different and every community is different. This is about community, you have to allow them to find the best path.”
It’s not as easy as it sounds, other presenters told the meeting. For one thing, funds to upgrade systems are not readily available to users.
“The government has done very little to help small systems,” the Association’s executive director Denny Ross-Smith said. “Small systems have moved forward, but they are too few and too far inbetween.”
Ross-Smith, a Harrop/Procter resident, formed the Association in 2003 to help and unify small water users struggling to maintain potable drinking water systems. The organization is now province wide.
“Small systems face huge challenges. The banks are reluctant to loan money. There is resistance to chlorinate. Users believe that their water is safe because no one has gotten ill,” he said.
“There is a poor understanding of liability. It’s kind of an embarrassment for BC.”
Ross-Smith pointed out that a host of Acts, Regulations, and Ministries further complicate the issue. “It’s far too cumbersome,” he said.
“And what does ‘potable’ mean? It’s not all that clear,” he said. “The health inspector has a dual role, to be a helpful advisor and to be a policeman. To me, they don’t go together well.”
There is help, however, from the Sustainable Infrastructure Society in Victoria. President Vernon Rogers said the organization can help with funding for initial infrastructure planning, best financial practices and insurance, among other management tools.
A local firm, Aqua Diversities, also presented their product, a fully equipped water treatment plant contained in a C-Can to move on site as did Ridgewood Road water users recently. They are now off a Boil Water Advisory.
Individual households on their own water systems are exempt from IH scrutiny.
But many small water users—two or more households on a system— have yet to be identified.
“It’s a real concern that we don’t know all of them,” Norlin said.
“Ultimately, we are looking for risk reduction.”
Check out the website for more information about the Small Water Users Association.