Seventy-six First Nations communities remain under an advisory to boil drinking water – including several in Alberta, according to new information from Health Canada.

Nearly 60 per cent of reserve drinking water systems in Alberta remain "at risk," and of the province's 78 First Nations water operators – only 14 are fully certified.

That's despite the fact the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has spent almost $2 billion to upgrade systems in the past five years.

CBC News filed access-to-information requests to obtain water audits on reserves in 2001, and compared that data with current information.

Among the findings:

  • Drinking water in two-thirds of First Nations communities remains "at risk," compared to three-quarters of all such communities in 2001.
  • Sixty-two per cent of water-system operators serving native communities aren't properly certified.
  • Some of the 76 reserves still under boil-water advisories have been in that position for years. People are forced to rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth, and some residents say the water is too dirty even for bathing.

  • Bob Pratt, water manager for the Gordon First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, says his community has just installed a new filtration system to fix a long-standing health hazard – dangerous levels of arsenic in the water.

    "We are now down under the guidelines," he said. "With our new process, we hope to take all of the arsenic out of the water. But for all those years... I've had questions I can't answer."

    Pratt is among the many water operators who are not properly certified to run the systems in their communities. He requires another year of training.

    "The focus, it seems to me, [has] been on equipment, rather than on personnel."

    Steve Hrudey, a professor of environmental health and a water-quality specialist from the University of Alberta, can't understand why First Nations still lag behind non-native communities when it comes to safeguarding water.

    "Often facilities are designed and put in place by people who don't have to operate them," he said. "They leave behind a manual and they leave town."

    He points out that bureaucrats in Ottawa seem to understand that you have to put trained public health nurses in the communities.

    "Why can't you put trained water operators in there? Obviously [you] have to pay them, and you have to invest in a program that will make sure they know what they're doing, but that doesn't seem to be happening, and I can't tell you why."

    Canada's commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, Johanne Gelinas, recently called for stricter controls and monitoring of how Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is trying to fix the problems.

    There are still no laws or regulatory standards similar to those in non-native communities, when it comes to drinking water for the about 325,000 residents of Canada's First Nations reserves, Gelinas, who works in the auditor general's office, pointed out.