Your body needs water more than it needs anything else. Food included. People are often surprised to hear we’d die of thirst quicker than we’d die of hunger. People are equally surprised when they hear that, in any given month, well over 100 communities in our province do not have continuous access to clean, safe drinking water. Including popular tourist towns and cultural hubs.

Long Term Boil Orders a Norm

The prevalence of long-term boil water advisories in this province is astonishing. Some boil order advisories have been in place continuously for decades.

As of Christmas Eve 2018, the province’s listing of communities on a boil order was 15 pages long, and included roughly 150 communities. Parts of Corner Brook were on there. Dildo, Conne River, Hopedale, Shaun Majumder’s TV-famous hometown of Burlington, tourist favourites like Port Rexton, Elliston, and Grates Cove.

The reasons varied, but they largely came down to communities being too cash-strapped and poorly trained to manage their own water supplies. As a result, their water system infrastructure is in a state of disrepair from poor maintenance. In smaller communities, water tax can’t generate sufficient money to fund the proper maintenance of a water system.

Real Health Risks

We drink water from lakes and ponds. Clean ones, sure, but they’re still full of life, including potentially fatal pathogens. In the 1900s, Chlorine became the most common way for a municipality to disinfect its water supply, and kill microorganisms that could make us sick. Chlorination also deals with foul smelling water and offputting colours. It’s also a relatively cheap process, so it’s become the go-to disinfectant for drinking water supplies.

In our province, of the 479 disinfection systems in play,  433 use chlorination. Chlorination of our water supply protects us from things like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery, that killed many of our ancestors, but chlorination is not a perfect process. In plain English, chlorine reacts with organic matter in the water (like decaying leaves or vegetation), and creates “Disinfectant By-products,” more commonly called “DBPs.” DPBs are a common concern in tap water in NL. In a sense, DPBs are a necessary evil of the modern water system, or at least something we accept in low numbers.

Common DBPs in NL are trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs). Some of these things are inconclusively linked to cancer and reproductive issues, including miscarriage. To a lesser extent, there’s some chatter about trihalomethanes possibly causing nervous system glitches. Among other things. Our province uses the “Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality” to set what we deem safe or acceptable levels of DBPs in our tap water.

In 2014, there were 270 reported cases of drinking water samples with higher-than-acceptable levels of DBPs from this province. An article in the Western Star in December of 2018 claims “roughly one-third of the province’s communities have levels of DBPs ranging from just above, to well above what the federal government deems acceptable.”

So DBPs in our water supply, like trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, are a real concern in this province. What’s more concerning than the degree of DBPs in our water, is the number of towns that can’t even afford to chlorinate their water, and protect citizens from things like E. Coli.

Public Concerns Are Driving People to Drink Untreated Water

A handful of well-executed case studies and reports have confirmed that long-term boil orders, discoloured tap water, smelly water, and health concerns about drinking unsafe tap water, are commonly driving people to drink untreated water from untreated sources, like wells or roadside springs.

This puts them at risk of getting ill. And not even realizing why. As a recent example, in 2015, a woman from Corner Brook collected water from a roadside spring she thought was safe. The water was infected with giardia — a microscopic parasite that causes a bad intestinal infection — and she was rendered quite ill.

So it is important that our province discusses and addresses the importance of safe drinking water, more than we seem to be doing.

Many Towns Cannot Afford This Basic Human Necessity

The Harris Centre is Memorial University’s hub for public policy and regional development. In 2014, in collaboration with Municipalities NL, The Harris Centre conducted a research project called Exploring Solutions for Sustainable Rural Drinking Water Systems.

The comprehensive project was led by Dr. Kelly Vodden and coordinated by Dr. Sarah Minnes. The most common issue, or cause of poor quality water, was aging and degrading infrastructure. Specifically due to “a lack of funds to make necessary repairs or upgrades” and “a lack of finances to pay certified operators.”

Some communities have a person or small team volunteering to take on the task, but in other communities, no one is willing, or trained, or able to take this on as a volunteer. Would you? The Province does have a mobile training unit, to roll into a town and train someone to become a certified operator, but that requires the people of a town to know about this service, avail of it, and have someone volunteer to take on both the training and the responsibility of running a water supply that quite likely has failing infrastructure.

It turns out that some communities no longer even have the blueprints or “as-builts” from the contractors who built their drinking water system. It’s grim. Referencing this report, Sarah Minnes wrote in the Newfoundland Quarterly (2015), “For many of these small communities, implementing mandated drinking water responsibilities is virtually impossible with existing human and financial resources.”

Part of the problem here, it seems, is we’re placing too much responsibility for water management on small municipalities that are financially and logistically incapable of doing the job we expect of them. To quote that MUN Harris Centre study again, “Decision makers often expressed during this research that they felt uneducated on important drinking water related subjects impacting their towns, especially regarding health concerns such as DBPs. ”

One Possible Path Forward:
CEO of Municipalities NL Advocates for a Regional Approach

The 2018 MUN Vital Signs report provided a logical means of addressing the issue. It came from Craig Pollett, CEO of Municipalities NL. To summarize a few key points, most municipalities in our province:

  • Do not have a sufficient local tax base to provide the services residents want.
  • Have one or fewer staff, which is insufficient to provide basic services.
  • Cannot manage their drinking water systems effectively.

As a result, a number of people are advocating for a regional approach to municipal government. It’s something Pollett is in support of.

“Regional is how the world does municipal government. A regional approach provides a larger tax base. It means new and better municipal services – ones that local councils cannot afford on their own. It means a much better use of existing and future resources: fire trucks, fire fighters, plows, loaders, money.”

He elaborates with the point that “we already live our lives in regions. We work, shop, go to school, get healthcare services and do all the things that make up a life across several communities. We are already living regionally. We need our government systems and public services to catch up with us. Not because we are in crisis – although we are – but because it would be the best solution even if we weren’t.”

Municipalities NL have really taken on the water issue. So much so, they hired the same Sarah Minnes cited throughout this article to act as a Water Liaison. They’ve also committed to things like helping a member town calculate appropriate water/sewer tax rates to fund water treatment plans; providing a digital map of water infrastructure as a membership service; and generally assisting with source water protection efforts.

One Necessary Path Forward: Better Source Water Protection

“Source water protection” is exactly what it sounds like. It means protecting drinking water sources from overuse and contamination.  It means implementing programs and policies that lessen the likelihood of polluting water sources.

Doing so protects the body of water you drink from. It is mainly financial barriers causing water system infrastructures to fall into disrepair province-wide. So water source protection is a simple way to lower the cost of treating water, because the cleaner the source water is in the first place, the less it’ll cost a town to treat that water.

In December of 2016, Seth Eledi published a literature review, titled Examining Source Water Protection Policies in NL. In it, he wrote, “Available research reveals that practicing Source Water Protection costs 6 to 20 times less than resolving and dealing with polluted water supplies.”

Yet Dr. Vodden & Minnes’ report found that, “Limited implementation of source water protection measures was found in rural NL, mainly due to either an absence of recognition of its importance at the local level, or a need of people available to monitor source water supplies.”

Eledi’s lit review concluded, “Municipalities are responsible for the implementation of policies and regulations, with the provincial government playing the role of an overseer. This has resulted in limited watershed plans and inadequate implementation of Source Water Protection regulations, due to limited financial and human capacity.”

In short, our approach to protecting sources of drinking water is not adequate. Largely because we lay the responsibility on communities who fail to recognize the importance of Source Water Protection, or who fail to have the people and resources required to monitor source water supplies.

One Option to Lower DBPs in NL

As mentioned above, we have to add chlorine to our water to kill harmful microorganisms. But that chlorine interacts with natural organic matter in the water to produce the high levels of Disinfection By-Products (DPBs) in our water supplies.  We can’t not add the chlorine, but what we could do, to lower DBPs, is try to filter out as much organic matter as we can, before chlorinating the water, so fewer Disenfectant by-Products are produced. The method used to do so would have to be affordable.

A recent study conducted in Newfoundland, and titled Affordable Water Filtration Technology for Small Rural Communities (Hezang, Tafvizi, Husain, and Chen; May 2017), states that activated carbon is the best available technology to do this, “because of its high affinity to organic matters even at low concentrations.”

Their study treated water systems in Sunnyside, New-Wes-Valley, and Salvage. Activated carbon filtration removed 64%, 77% and 74% of Natural Organic Matter from the source water, respectively. This reduced the subsequent formation of concerning trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. The authors recommend  enhancing the activated carbon filtration they employed, as a pre-chlorination treatment technology for intake source waters.

What’s the Province Doing?

The provincial government is aware of the issue, of course. The 2017 Drinking Water Safety Annual Report lays out a strategy devoted to this cause, known as the Multi-Barrier Strategic Action Plan (MBSAP).

The Annual Report states that the MBSAP model is “considered to be the most effective method of managing drinking water systems and has been implemented by other jurisdictions throughout Canada.”

Highlights from the 2016–17 fiscal year included $36,165,439 approved for water infrastructure projects; 126 on-site training seminars; The development and enforcement of new guidelines for the construction and maintenance of ATV trails inside protected public water supply areas; The Implementation of new standard operating procedures in eleven pilot communities; The development of a Full Cost Accounting Assessment Tool (to assist water system operators in their financial planning and operation); And the collection of ~ 21,000 bacteriological, chemical, and physical water quality samples.

A Water and Wastewater Operator pilot program was also launched in 2015-2016. It’s a three-year initiative whose main objective is to enhance the cost effective operation and maintenance of municipal water and wastewater systems. The Annual Report states that the pilot communities participating in the program “have been able to manage their existing infrastructure better, and at the same time lower costs, by shifting from a reactive to a proactive approach to maintenance and repairs, engaging in more effective planning exercises, and providing a higher quality level of service to residents.”

The report says that of the 477 public water sources in our province, 376 are protected, and 101 are unprotected. There are 3 or 4 more water treatment plants in the province compared to 5 years ago too. But as it stands, the number of communities impacted by boil order advisories, or the number of unsatisfactory E. Coli samples hasn’t really changed in the last 5 years.