Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Clean water feels like a pipe dream

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Three years ago, technicians and engineers proudly turned on the taps at the Winnipeg Water Treatment Plant, a facility heralded as one of the most technologically advanced in the world.

The $300-million plant at the Deacon Reservoir, just east of the Red River Floodway, is capable of removing the hardiest of micro-organisms from the city's water supply, including cryptosporidium and giardia.

It uses a variety of treatment steps to filter out organic material from the waters of Indian Bay on Shoal Lake, thus reducing the exposure of Winnipeggers to potentially carcinogenic compounds created when chlorine interacts with organics.

It has a chlorine-production facility on site to eliminate the potential for deadly rail disasters. It has its own electrical plant to ensure Winnipeg is never without clean water, even if an ice storm or tornado takes down hydro lines.

And as an added bonus, Winnipeggers were promised three years ago the new plant would improve the aesthetics of Winnipeg's drinking water, which used to be tainted by the smell and taste of algae during the many summers when the water flowed all but unfiltered from Shoal Lake.

Yet now, the city is struggling with some of the worst tap-water esthetics ever, as complaints about water the colour of coffee filter in from practically every neighbourhood.

This August, 311 fielded precisely 1,683 complaints about persistent discoloration of water. The number of transient complaints -- that is, calls or emails about temporary cases of brown water -- were not tracked but believed to be much higher.

The immense amount of persistent complaints -- nearly triple the number fielded during the same month in 2012 -- has shaken confidence in yet another key city service. And this is particularly sad, given the tremendous pride associated with the opening of the new water-treatment plant.

It's almost like the city just ordered up a state-of-the-art, high-performance Ferrari engine and installed it under the hood of a rusted-out 1973 Chevy Nova.

While Winnipeg's still-new water-treatment plant is a technical marvel, the city's water-distribution system is ancient. Some of the cast-iron pipes that carry treated water to Winnipeg households are more than a century old and predate the 1914 completion of the aqueduct from Shoal Lake.

According to Geoff Patton, the engineering manager for Winnipeg's water-and-waste department, approximately 24 per cent of Winnipeg's 2,531 kilometres of water pipes are made of iron. But the brown water emanating out of so many Winnipeg households this summer is not the result of rust.

The brown water comes from sediment, much of it deposited into pipes during the many decades before the new water-treatment plant filtered out algae and other organic material from Shoal Lake.

The big mystery is what precisely is stirring up that sediment. The usual suspects are routine flushing operations aimed at scouring sediment from the pipes or major construction projects that require the taps to be turned on and off, city water-distribution engineer Tim Shanks has attempted to explain many times in recent weeks.

The changes in the flow stir up the sediment and unexplained flow changes may be the result of unauthorized access to hydrants, Shanks added earlier this week, revealing the city has a problem with water theft.

The city is also exploring whether water chemistry is somehow to blame as well. In theory, inert elements added to the water in the treatment plant for the purposes of coagulating little clumps of organic material -- which are then easily filtered out -- could still be working down the line, in water-distribution pipes containing old sediment.

But that is just one potential line of investigation. There are also theories involving the interaction of the treated water with the newer of the cast-iron pipes, which are being replaced with PVC pipes at a rate of 11 or 12 kilometres a year at an annual expense of $15 million.

Eventually, the entire system should be free of sediment, as there are no new algae bits flowing through the Winnipeg Water Treatment Plant.

But this future prospect comes as little solace to any Winnipegger with a sink full of water of a colour that should only belong in a bowl of a different sort.

What is perplexing to engineers is disturbing to people in their homes -- and unsettling in a city where the mood is dark enough when it comes to confidence in the public sector.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2013 B1


Updated on Friday, September 6, 2013 at 7:26 AM CDT: replaces photo, formats text

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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