B.C. First Nation latest to take control of water problems

First Nations have been plagued by problems with drinking water — the federal government said 127 communities had drinking water advisories in December 2016. A small but growing number of First Nations are finding unique ways to tackle that huge problem.

Lytton First Nation among small but growing number finding solutions to drinking water problems

A small, mobile water treatment plant is lowered into place on Lytton First Nation — ending years of drinking water advisories. (RES'EAU-WaterNET)

A small but growing number of First Nations are finding unique ways to tackle a huge problem.

For decades, First Nations have been plagued by a lack of clean drinking water, an issue many blame on crumbling infrastructure and chronic underfunding.

Among more than 600 First Nations across Canada, the federal government said 127 were under drinking water advisories as of December 2016. ​Some advisories have been in place for over 20 years.

Members of the Lytton First Nation can now drink straight from their taps, thanks to a mobile, state-of-the-art water treatment plant that fits on the back of a truck.

The First Nation — located around 150 kilometres north of Vancouver — installed the plant on one of its reserves in 2016, ending decades of boil-water advisories.

The plant was built in a lab at the University of British Columbia by RES'EAU-WaterNET, a project working to find breakthroughs in engineering that can be applied to clean water development.

"Now the people can drink their water at will," said Jim Brown, Lytton's recently retired water manager. "It means a lot. The people don't have to go elsewhere to pack water or buy water, and it's good for the kids."

Working 'hand-in-hand'

Lytton First Nation has more than 2,000 members, around half of which live on small reserves scattered along the Fraser and Thompson rivers.

Those reserves are serviced by 10 separate water systems, most of which have been under periodic water advisories for years because of aging infrastructure or contamination from things like rain or spring run-off.

In 2010, Brown said Indigenous Affairs turned down a $1.3-million quote from an engineer to upgrade the water plant on the Nickeyeah reserve, which has just six houses. 

The Lytton First Nation's new water treatment plant is simple in design and fits on the back of a truck. (RES'EAU-WaterNET)
"They said it wasn't cost-effective," Brown said. "I asked, does that mean that the people on the Nickeyeah reserve are going to drink this water forever?"

The response from Indigenous Affairs, Brown said, was a partnership between the First Nation and RES'EAU-WaterNET.

RES'EAu-WaternNET began community consultations in 2013, backed by funding from the federal government and another group called IC-IMPACTS, an initiative bringing experts from Canada and India together "to work hand-in-hand to find solutions to the key challenges that affect the quality of life of millions of people," their website says.

Construction of the plant was was completed in 2015, for less than half of the $1.3-million quoted earlier.

Tailored solution

The treatment system was created with local geography in mind. It draws water from a nearby creek, which was identified and tested in co-operation with community members. 

It was designed and built in a lab at the University of British Columbia, by RES'EAU-WaterNET engineer Madjid Mohseni.​ It was funded by IC-IMPACTS and used input garnered from community members and elders during the consultation phase.

Members of the Lytton First Nation form a circle with the community's partners after installing the new water plant. (RES'EAU-WaterNET)
The plant itself uses a variety of filtration and purification tools, including different sized filters, an ion exchanger, activated carbon, ultraviolet purifiers and a chlorination system.

But it was designed to be smaller — fitting in a shipping container — and easier to use than larger, often more expensive treatment facilities.

Taking control

Lytton isn't alone in looking for unique solutions to their water problems.

The Liberal government has vowed to end drinking water advisories in First Nations communities within five years, but a group of Ontario First Nations isn't waiting for that to happen.

Five northern communities now have access to clean drinking water, thanks to a First Nations-led initiative called the Safe Water Project, which trains and certifies local water operators, provides operational support for water systems and deploys state-of-the-art technology to monitor water quality in real time.

Fort Severn Chief Paul Burke with state-of-the-art water quality monitoring equipment offered through the Safe Water Project in Ontario. (Jody Porter/CBC)
"We needed an answer to all of the boil-water advisories, and there was nothing coming from the government," said Fort Severn First Nation Chief Paul Burke, who is spokesperson for the Safe Water Project.

"We wanted to take control of it."


The Safe Water Project is now working with 19 First Nations in northwestern Ontario and has helped lift five boil-water advisories. Several more are expected to be lifted in 2017, including one on North Spirit Lake First Nation that has been in place for over 15 years. 

What the project can't do is fix aging infrastructure, which is up to the federal government. However, certified water operators and real-time monitoring can make new treatment plants last much longer, Burke said.

"It's too bad that this wasn't rolled out years ago."

In Lytton, they're encouraging other communities to look at their example.

"The more people look at alternatives, the better off First Nations will be," Brown said.