First Nation communities in Alberta face many challenges to accessing clean drinking water. According to Health Canada, as of November 28, 2016, there were 10 public and semi-public Boil Water Advisories (BWA) in First Nation communities in Alberta. BWAs exist for a variety of reasons from damaged or inadequately maintained cistern/holding tank to inadequate disinfection at the treatment plant. Adequate treatment of water is an absolute necessity, but to ensure clean and healthy drinking water it is best to be proactive and start at the source. Source water refers to the lakes, rivers and aquifers where communities get their drinking water.
Frog Lake First Nations 121 & 122 are located next to Frog Lake in northeast Alberta (Treaty 6) and are home to 1,788 on-reserve members. “Over the years,” says Kendra Quinney, GIS Technician at Frog Lake Lands Department, “we have noticed an increase in oil and gas activity and a decrease in our water levels. On top of that, our nation is growing and more and more new houses are being built, putting more pressure on our water systems.”
As a result of concern for the source of their drinking water, Frog Lake First Nation partnered with TSAG on the Young Water Monitors project in 2013. “The goal of the project was to start a community-based water monitoring program in Frog Lake,” says Kendra, a project participant. “What we learned was to better protect our water at the source and to effectively reduce the impact of on and off reserve land use activities, we needed a strategy or a plan, a Source Water Protection Plan (SWPP).”
A national assessment of on-reserve drinking water systems confirmed in 2011 that most First Nations in Canada did not have a SWPP, and only one existed in Alberta. This identified gap motivated TSAG to collaborate with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and Dr. Bob Patrick from the University of Saskatchewan to develop a First Nation on-reserve SWPP guide and template. The guide and template was piloted first with Siksika Nation in southeast Alberta in 2012, and in 2013, Frog Lake First Nation came on board.
Source Water Protection Planning is integral for all First Nations; we need to ensure that there are healthy water bodies for future generations.
After four months of meetings, the working committee, with representatives from health, public works, education, and lands departments including Kendra, the plan champion, completed the 5 steps of the SWPP process. Since then, the working committee has implemented several management actions from their SWPP including placing a 250 m buffer around the lake, developing a waste transfer station, decommissioning a number of commercial underground fuel tanks, and organizing an annual cistern cleaning program. “In 2015, there were 189 private water system BWA issued in Frog Lake. A lot of these BWAs were the result of inadequately cleaned/maintained cisterns, which is the responsibility of the homeowner. This year, we tested 123 houses and only half were contaminated (59), which is a considerable improvement,” reports Kendra.
In addition, they have initiated a Traditional Land Use (TLU) study, a feasibility study on alternative drinking water sources for Frog Lake First Nations, a landfill survey to test for leachate and a survey of ground water sources - three test wells were drilled and four underground aquifers were located. “We had one oil and gas energy company propose to do a project not even 20 m from the spring that feeds our source water,” Kendra highlights. “A SWPP in this case gave us the leverage to challenge their proposal which in the end, was not approved.”
But with project success, often comes challenges and lessons learned. A strong SWPP working committee ideally has participants with backgrounds in environmental health, public health, solid waste management, and community planning, as well as youth and elder representatives. “Bringing all these people together creates the best SWPP; however, it can be challenging to juggle schedules and other commitments to have everyone come to meetings,” says Kendra.
A SWPP in most cases requires a plan facilitator and resources for elder honorarium and lunches. Fortunately, TSAG was awarded funding in 2016 to continue supporting interested First Nations in Alberta in the development of SWPP through providing a plan facilitator and support resources to participating Nations. TSAG plans to engage with at least 30 more First Nations in Alberta over the next 2-3 years. Kendra recommends to other First Nations who are interested in developing a SWPP to get youth involved and include them in the planning process, as they are the future leaders of the community. “SWPP is integral for all First Nations; we need to ensure that there are healthy water bodies for future generations.”
For more information about SWPP, please contact Rosey Radmanovich at firstname.lastname@example.org.