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Water Today Title December 11, 2017

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Updated 01/02/14


By Kelsey Keohane

How much is too much to pay for clean drinking water? Under pressure to upgrade, small communities in British Columbia are demanding that the government allow for a more cost-effective means of water treatment.

Interior Health is working to upgrade the water systems of BC communities under long-term Boil Water Advisories. The vast majority of these advisories, especially the long-term ones, are in smaller communities within the Kootenay, Okanagan, and Thompson/Cariboo/Shuswap regions of BC. Some of these water systems are privately owned by their user communities, but most are some form of irrigation district or strata.

“BC regulations define ‘small’ as anything serving less than 500 persons in a day,” said J.Ivor Norlin, Manager of Infrastructure Programs at Interior Health.

There are approximately fifty-two Boil Water Advisories dating back to the ‘90s in British Columbia alone, according to the Interior Health website. Commonly, these are in place due to un-disinfected surface water from a spring, creek, or shallow well that is going into the distribution system. In the case of a spring or creek, it is outlined in the legislation that they must be disinfected in order to be considered safe. Shallow wells are more complicated depending on how shallow they are; in some cases it is e-coli or other bacteria in the water which calls for advisory.

According to Norlin, several initiatives are in place to help residents of these communities. The primary initiative is called the Boil Water Remediation Program. This focus program works with about 300 systems on long-term advisories, which are advisories exceeding 18 months.

“The program is a template, every system is different of course, but it looks to set anywhere around a five year plan,” said Norlin.

The initiative works to ensure that the residents using these water systems are aware of the risks, identify what remediation options are available to them, clarify what the finances are for those options, and then implement them. The most common form of treatment suggested for these communities is a chlorinated and/or UV treatment system. However, many communities see these upgrades as unnecessary and too expensive.

“We’re happy with our water. That’s why everybody is a little reluctant to chlorinate,” said one resident of the Taghum Springs community. “[…] I’ve had quotes anywhere from half a million to over a million dollars to do it. You know, we can’t afford that.”

“People don’t believe their water poses a health hazard to them,” explained Jim Fisher, a resident of the Taghill Water Users Community. “[…]It’s all being driven by the government. It’s not being driven by the people on the water systems.”

Many of the small communities expressed similar beliefs. Not only are residents content with their water, but many feel that the costs outweigh the benefits - not only in terms of money, but labour as well.

As a resident of the Klines Mobile Home Park said, “We’re not doing it, that’s plain and simple. You have to have someone there 24 hours a day taking care of that system. You’ve got to have a grade 12 education or better.”

The chlorinated treatment system is not practical for many of these communities whose greatest use of water isn’t domestic consumption, but irrigation of their lawns, fields, and crops. In these communities, a point-of-entry or point-of-use system would be more effective.

“Gar Creek just signed an agreement with IHA which is probably the first in the province that acknowledges the role of the individual home owner and I think you’ll have much more interest and uptake in treating water if you allow people to put point-of-entry systems in,” explained Andy Shadrack, Director of Area D for Regional District Central Kootenay.

Under BC legislation, small systems are eligible for putting in point-of-entry treatment or point-of-use treatment. These are cheaper alternatives to putting in a centralized system. Point-of-use devices only treat the water that is intended for direct consumption and is typically limited to select taps within the house. Point-of-entry devices treat all the water entering the house.

“It’s been quite a battle to get to this point,” said Shadrack. “I’ve been working on this issue for twenty years, trying to persuade government to allow a form of treatment that is affordable.”

While the point-of-use and point-of-entry systems are the most cost-effective means of treatment available for smaller communities, they are still expensive. For some communities who don’t believe they need treatment at all, it is regarded as a waste of money.

“What the majority of people I think on our line would like to go to is some kind of point of entry system, but our question is ‘how are we going to pay for it?’” said Fisher. “It’s going to be about $3500 a household […] and we keep hearing about other places that get funding from different levels of government.”

So, why do some communities receive government funding and not others?

“The only people who get any financial assistance, generally speaking, are the municipalities and the regional district systems,” explained Shadrack. “[…] All the rest are community run systems and they’re not eligible for any grants other than what I might give them. I have what’s called Community Works funding and I have given some of the community systems in my electoral area some grant money through Community Works, which is Gas Tax because it specifically charges me to work on improving water.”

Community Works funding allows local governments to make choices about eligible projects, such as the improvement of public transit, community energy, water, wastewater, or solid waste infrastructure, to name a few.

Residents of small community water systems without access to such funding are left with the financial burden of installation and upkeep.

“I pay taxes just like you pay taxes,” argued Fisher. “So why should my money be going to pay for the people of Nelson when I can’t get money for my system?”

Despite backlash against the cost of treatment, not every opinion of the Boil Water Remediation Program and government efforts are unfavourable.

“They definitely have done a good job with the water system stuff and they’ve been promoting it, and brought education to all the people running the water systems,” said Frank Pottrick, resident of the Mountainview Trailer Park System. “I can honestly say the government did their part, and are doing their part still.”

So, while many communities aren’t entirely opposed to installing new treatment, they expressed resentment for being pressured to upgrade without being offered financial aid.

“If they paid for it, we’d put it in,” said Fisher.

- Kelsey Keohane

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