Walkerton, Ont., North Battleford, Sask., and the Kashechewan First Nation Reserve, in Northern Ontario, have all become high-profile — and tragic — examples of what can go wrong when a community’s drinking water becomes contaminated. Surprisingly, they are not alone. At any given time, 1,700 small communities across the country, including some six million Canadians, are living with boil-water advisories because of the risk of exposure to water-borne pathogens.
RES’EAU-WaterNET, a national strategic research network led by University of British Columbia chemical and biological engineering professor Madjid Mohseni, is working on addressing the problems plaguing small, rural and First Nations water systems to ensure that all Canadians have clean drinking water.
While the country’s large urban centres have excellent water-quality systems, with well-trained staff, controlled water sources and state-of-the-art treatment plants, systems in small and remote communities are often run by volunteers and may not have reliable water sources. And even when a small community wants to upgrade its system, the available technology, typically designed for big users, is unaffordable. RES’EAU-WaterNET aims to develop affordable and robust technologies for these communities.
“The challenge is that each community’s problem is unique, and the communities are distributed across a very wide range of areas, water-source types and climate,” says Mohseni. “This makes it economically challenging and therefore less attractive for private industries to develop this size technology on its own.”
Properly treating water can also be a challenge. To kill pathogens, chlorine is added to the water. But if too much is added — say, during spring floods, when there is high turbidity in the water — the chlorine will react with organic matter to form harmful disinfection byproducts, such as haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes, both of which have been linked to health problems and birth defects.
“Right now, water treatment is based on how much water is running through the system, how much chlorine to add and how much material to remove,” says Asit Mazumder, a University of Victoria biologist specializing in drinking water. “But we don’t know if this treatment will work in 10 or 20 years with land use changing and climate change, and associated changes in the quality of water at the source.” As part of his work with RES’EAU-WaterNET, Mazumder and his colleagues are meeting with water-treatment operators across the country to track yearly water-quality changes and collect intensive source and distribution data on water quality, so they can develop better ways to manage treatment techniques and protect water sources in the future.
Born out of a national meeting of water experts in 2006, six years after E. coli and campylobacter bacteria contaminated the drinking water in Walkerton, Ont., killing seven people and making another 2,500 ill, RES’EAU-WaterNET began its five-year mandate in April 2009. The network includes communities, government, the private sector and seven Canadian universities. With 18 projects already under way, the group has four main goals: to develop robust, necessary and affordable technologies; to create a technology-assessment tool to help water-treatment managers pick the right system for their needs; to create a training protocol and manual for the operators of small systems; and to develop a water-quality database to determine how the quality of water sources changes over time and space and their implications for optimal treatment and disinfection.
Colin Saunders, utilities manager for the Municipality of Brockton, Ont., which includes Walkerton, has high hopes for RES’EAU-WaterNET. “There are two main benefits of the network for the huge percentage of Canadians who rely on small treatment systems,” he says. “It will provide the best treatment possible for each individual system and also make it cost-effective. As a manager and a taxpayer, that is what I’m always looking for.”