Water is flowing through the taps once again in Big Grassy River First Nation after three months without consistent, potable water.
However, the current water is untreated and coming directly from Lake of the Woods as the community waits for repairs to the water filtration system.
The result is that community members have had to go to the beach to collect water for basic sanitation needs, and buildings have been shuttered and the school remains closed to students until a running, drinkable water service is restored.
Lynn Indian, the chief for the northwestern Ontario First Nation, says despite efforts by water operators to keep water running when possible, she’s worried about the implications of not having regular water service.
“I was immediately concerned for our vulnerable population. We have newborn babies, our elderly … and I was pretty concerned about how are we going to bring potable water into the community for health and safety.”
Water outage caused by electrical storm in July
The water outage was caused at the beginning of July by an unlikely event — a lightning strike directly to the water treatment facility.
“It basically fried quite a few critical components to the water treatment process. Specifically, we call it the brains of the water treatment plant … even after it was replaced, it still didn’t know what to do,” said Melvin Major, a water treatment operator for the facility in Big Grassy.
As soon as the lightning strike happened, the First Nation’s community control group held a conference call and discussed what needed to be done.
The First Nation then issued a “do not consume” notice, meaning that community members were not allowed to turn on their taps.
According to Tim Archie, the project director for the community’s water treatment plant upgrade and expansion, staff worked to “restore the water levels in [its] reservoirs … because [there were] deficiencies in supplying good water pressure.”
But while some issues were fixed, new leaks and other problems in the treatment process were found, further delaying the return of regular, potable water service to the community.
The delays forced the community to find new ways to access water.
“Through our emergency preparedness group and advocating for our members, we’ve been able to pull together and ensure that we have potable water when we have zero water. We were able to go around delivering raw water from the lake for things like toilet flushing,” said Indian.
“We were able to force a well down near the community and it’s not treated water but it was water that thankfully we were able to use for bathing the kids and personal hygiene. And then we bought potable water for cooking and drinking.”
Latest water advisory in Big Grassy lifted in February 2020
This isn’t the first time the First Nation has had problems with its water supply.
Its water treatment system was originally constructed in 1997 with a design life of 20 years.
The community went onto its most recent boil water advisory in March 2017, in part because of the existing facility’s inability to deal with surface water quality changes experienced through the seasons. That boil water advisory was lifted in April 2019 after maintenance and repairs were completed on the treatment system.
Another short-term drinking water advisory was lifted in February 2020, after being in effect since August 2019.
Work started in May to expand the existing water treatment facility at Big Grassy — an upgrade that is supposed to provide a long-term solution to the First Nations water problems — but it isn’t scheduled to be completed until May 2021.