New Brunswick

6 west Saint John neighbourhoods to switch to east side water system

Less than two years after switching Saint John's west side to a new drinking water system, the city is now diverting many of those same neighbourhoods to a new water source.

City cancels contract with engineering firm that helped create west side well field water system

Brent McGovern, commissioner of Saint John Water, says the six west Saint John neighbourhoods should be diverted to the east side water system by the end of 2019. (Connell Smith, CBC)

Less than two years after switching Saint John's west side to a new drinking water system, the city is now diverting many of those same neighbourhoods to a new water source.

The areas affected include Saint John's lower west side, Milford, Randolph, Fundy Heights, Duck Cove and Sand Cove. They are to begin receiving surface water from the Loch Lomond Treatment plant on the city's east side by the end of the year.

At the same time the city has cancelled its contract with the engineering firm that was instrumental in the creation of the west side well field water system and hired a law firm to pursue the company, BGC Engineering, for costs.

The South Bay well field will continue to serve water customers in the remaining west side neighourhoods.

Brent McGovern, the city's water commissioner, said the move will take pressure off the city's three wells at South Bay, which have been drawn down a metre below sea level, a development that could spell trouble down the road.

"I want to emphasize that there's no evidence of any intrusion of salt water or brackish water today," said McGovern.

"This is a gradual process that can take years. However, it is best that we take early action to prevent any consequences from occurring."

Several neighbourhoods in west Saint John, which are featured in dark blue, will soon be receiving drinking water from the city's east side treatment plant. (Saint John Water)

Some residents in the affected area welcomed the news Tuesday. They've had trouble with the new water supply and are hopeful the change will put an end to that. 

"I think it's about time," Bruce Sullivan said. "A lot of people here had a lot of problems on the west side with the water."

McGovern said a water main is already in place to bring the water across the Reversing Falls Bridge, but a new pumping station will be required to carry it into the six neighbourhoods.

The work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

City blames engineering firm 

McGovern said both east and west water sources meet federal and provincial guidelines. But the surface water from the east is softer and will have a different taste to new customers.

The commissioner said the city received bad advice from BGC and also from two independent hydro geologists who reviewed the engineering documentation on the capacity of the well field. 

"The city is seeking compensation from the engineering firm for its wrong advice and additional costs to address the issue," said McGovern.

In an emailed statement, BGC Engineering said that it is confident the advice it gave the city was appropriate, and noted  the cause of the issues related to the well-field water levels hasn't been determined. The firm said it would continue to support the city with the project if asked.

On Monday night, the city approved the hiring of the legal firm Torys LLP to pursue compensation, approving $275,000 plus HST and disbursements. 

Saint John Mayor Don Darling said he's "very disappointed" and "very frustrated" with BGC.

"The city used that information to make their decision and they were wrong," he said.

BGC is a national company with offices in nine Canadian centres.

An illustration prepared by Saint John Water shows water levels in the city's South Bay well field have fallen a metre below sea level. This raises the risk of salt water intrusion. (Saint John Water)

The city started to look for sources of well water in 2012 as a way to save money on all, or even parts, of a new drinking water system.

The only suitable source found was in the west side's South Bay well field.  

The engineering study reported there was more than enough to supply all customers west of the St. John River and it was of much higher quality than the treated surface water from nearby Spruce Lake.

West side residents not happy 

The new west side water system was turned on in September, 2017.

Shortly after, complaints began to pour in from residents with leaking pipes inside their homes. Mary Boyce, who has lived in the area for about three years, said she noticed problems right away. 

"We developed major water leaks, no water pressure. Our tenant has been complaining about very dry, itchy skin," she said. "It's just, it's been chaos. "

A meeting was held with Saint John Mayor Don Darling and west side residents in February 2018, to discuss plumbing issues in the area. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

The issue has been attributed to changes in the makeup of the water, leading to the breakdown of scale that had previously built up inside copper pipes.

Others residents are not happy with the taste and hardness of the well water.

Boyce was hopeful the change to east side water will lead to something better but she also wants the city to consult residents. 

Not everyone was optimistic, however. David  Mazerolle is fed up with the city and said he doesn't trust any of the water it provides. 

Lost trust in city

"I don't trust what they're going to do in the next move," he said. "If I had the money I'd drill my own well so I know where it was coming from."

He said a pipe burst in his driveway the first week of the new well field system, forcing him to dig up his driveway in order to fix it. 

A class action lawsuit has been certified by the courts, and all west side water customers are included except those choosing to opt out. 

About the Author

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

With files from Sarah Kester

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