Engineers have fanned out across Canada to evaluate the state of water and wastewater services on almost every one of the country's 610 First Nations.
The $9-million assessment comes in the wake of a long list of damning government reports, issued over more than a decade, that warned about the health consequences of not solving reserve water woes.
The project, co-ordinated by Winnipeg engineer Heather MacKenzie, is supposed to help the federal government pin down what it will cost to bring up to standard every First Nations water and sewage plant in Canada.
A similar assessment in 2003 pegged the cost at about $1.7 billion over five years. Almost that much was spent by 2008, but 117 First Nations still have to boil their drinking water.
When former Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice announced his drinking water action plan in 2006, he said enough resources had been budgeted and the problem was more one of accountability. He warned that if First Nations didn't fall into line with his new protocol, they risked losing federal funding for their water systems.
The new assessment should settle the question of whether First Nations really do have enough money to meet water quality standards.
Indian Affairs would not allow a Free Press reporter to accompany the consultants from aboriginal-owned Neegan Burnside on a site visit, but Wasagamack First Nations shared its draft report.
It's clear the community's wastewater treatment plant built in 1996 is not big enough to service a community of 1,662, let alone deal with population growth. The only reason it can function is that 60 per cent of the community's homes don't have flush toilets.
"We don't need to live like that," said vice-chief Walter Harper, who is pleading with Indian Affairs to fund water and sewer upgrades.
Wasagamack's lack of basic sanitation seems to have been missed by the engineer who visited for a day in September 2009, even though one of the mandates of the national assessment is to "identify where immediate action is required due to a risk to public health."
The engineer reported that all homes without piped water store their sewage in a tank for pickup by a vacuum truck. According to the First Nation's records, most actually rely on overflowing outhouses and latrine buckets dumped on the ground every morning.
The Neegan report is a draft still in the process of being validated.
Dividing the amount of drinking water delivered by truck by the number of people living in homes with truck delivery -- more than 70 per cent of the community -- it becomes clear there are two classes of homes in Wasagamack. Homes with piped water use more litres per person than Winnipeggers. Those without piped water are delivered the amount provided by aid agencies during natural disasters -- about 20 times less. If those families want more water, they can trek with pails to one of two community taps.
The engineer's team found problems that could lead to contamination in every water storage cistern or barrel inspected. The barrels lacked covers or insect screens, while the tanks leaked, hadn't been cleaned and in some cases were impossible for homeowners to clean because of their location in confined spaces. More than half were too close to sewage or fuel storage tanks.
Wasagamack elder Saul Harper said his family's water barrel is near the road and dust blows into it.
"We have problem with our water for the health," said the 71-year-old man, whose first language is Oji-Cree.
Across the lake at Garden Hill, a Neegan Burnside assessor snapped a photo of a mouse living in the insulation of a water storage tank.
"I saw something moving and I kind of jumped," he said, noting he also saw mouse droppings around a couple of open tanks.
"I'm not surprised that people are getting sick there."
Wasagamack's wastewater treatment plant is in disrepair due to break-ins and vandalism. At the time of the engineer's visit, it was discharging barely treated sewage into Island Lake. That's especially alarming when some community residents drink lake water.
The report describes the main operator of the water treatment plant as knowledgable, but frustrated about his lack of control of the budget. The First Nation is being run by an outside management firm, under orders from Indian Affairs.
An expert panel on First Nations drinking water noted in 2006 that First Nations water plant staff are committed to water quality, but sometimes feel their bosses on the band council need to focus more on water issues.
Neegan Burnside's draft reports do not include any recommendations -- those will be added to the final version. The national and regional reports will be posted on the Indian Affairs website.
In Northlands First Nation, which has been waiting several years for water and sewer upgrades, the consultant's report could be used to lobby for quicker funding. The too-small system tends to break down in winter, so notices go up around the community when the ground freezes asking residents to use less water. It's a 13-hour drive over winter roads to Thompson to bring in replacement parts.
If the water plant goes down overnight, local people have to haul lake water and then boil it to drink.
"In the wintertime, it's kind of hard because you have to drill a hole," said band manager Matilda Dettanikkeaze.
Read this list of warnings by government watchdogs over the last 15 years about the water crisis on First Nations.