Nova Scotia

Search for new water source on Potlotek First Nation begins soon

Drilling of test wells could begin in a matter of days to locate a new source of clean drinking water for the people of Potlotek First Nation.

Test wells will be drilled in the coming days as community tries to find clean drinking water

Residents of Potlotek First Nation are unable to bathe or drink tap water in their community. A new water source is now being sought. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

The drilling of test wells could begin in a matter of days to locate a new source of clean drinking water for the people of Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton.

Representatives of Health Canada and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) visited the community on Tuesday to formally announce that Potlotek will get a new water system.

The tap water in Potlotek suffers from seasonal discolouration and a foul odour due to high levels of manganese and iron at the source, but Health Canada's Dr. David Jones said it's worse this year for a reason not fully understood.

"It's not unsafe, in the sense of those levels of manganese, they discolour the water. It's not suitable to drink, but in terms of any short-term impacts directly, we actually take in much more manganese in our diets," Jones said.

Looking for good water

Jones said the focus is on getting a permanent source of good water, and in the meantime, supplying clean bottled and bulk water to the community for consumption, housecleaning and bathing.

Contractors will begin drilling test wells to identify possible sources of water that could supply the community for as long as 25 to 30 years, Jones said.

It hasn't been determined whether the new system will draw water from a lake, as the current system does, or if each home will have its own well.

"I've seen groundwater wells with high levels of arsenic, high levels of sulphur, many other things, and surface water supplies that are better," Jones said.

"I've seen others [with] a delicious groundwater source that's secure, and surface water that's a problem."

A resident holds up a "clean" towel after it's been through the wash. (CBC)

A year in the planning

The announcement of a new water system for Potlotek appeared to come as a pleasant surprise to many in the community, but Chris McDonnell, INAC regional director for the Atlantic region, said it's actually been in the works for quite a while.

A group created to address the water problems in Potlotek was established more than a year ago, he said.

"This working group knew that the system was on the list for replacement," he said, "and the group was also tasked with doing the maintenance and renovations to the existing system to ensure that it performs to its standard until the new system is built and the transition can occur."

The working group includes residents of Potlotek, among them the technicians who maintain the current water system.

'They manned up to it'

Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall said the community told government officials Tuesday they don't want their future water to come from a lake.

"There's too many negative impacts that could go wrong any time," said the chief.

"The highway's going right through our community, right through our watershed," he said. "The watershed also goes beyond our community and we have no control over people cutting trees, and tree farmers and four-wheelers."

Marshall said he's relieved for the community that the end of its water crisis is in sight.

"I didn't know what to tell them anymore, but at least they [government officials] showed up today and they manned up to it, I guess," he said.

McDonnell estimated that it will take as long as two or three years before the new water system is functioning. 

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