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Boiling mad

It's hard to keep water flowing, and to keep residents safe

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HOLLOW WATER FIRST NATION -- Water detective Clarence Peebles is on the case. Every time the water plant operator sees a suspicious puddle -- day or night, his weary wife confirms -- he leaps out of his truck and scoops up some water.

If a test strip dipped in the water turns pink, Peebles knows somewhere under the ground is a pipe leaking his precious chlorine-treated water.

A single pipe break or a running toilet can be enough to overwhelm the community's aging treatment plant, designed 20 years ago to supply a maximum population of 720.

About 1,000 people now live on the Hollow Water reserve, but it will likely be 2015 before their treatment plant is expanded enough to meet local needs.

In the meantime, every time there's a waterline break, water flows through the system faster than the plant's filters can keep up. To maintain water pressure for firefighting and to flush toilets, Peebles has to feed water from the Wanipigow River directly into Hollow Water's reservoir.

He adds some chlorine to the reservoir before sending the water out to homes, but it is not safe for drinking, so residents have been forced to boil their drinking water about 40 per cent of the time since January 2008.

Signs are posted at the local store, the band office and the nursing station reminding residents that drinking tap water can make them sick, although the signs are not very eye-catching. On a September day when a Free Press reporter and photographer visited, the band office sign had been taken down because local people had scribbled rude comments on it. A sign in a local store had also gone missing.

"We have no control over when they pull it down," Coun. Denelle Bushie said.

Those who can afford it buy 19-litre jugs of clean drinking water for $6 each and don't bother checking whether the boil water order is on or off.

But Shayle Moneyas said her family sometimes has no choice but to drink the tap water. More than a month after a boil-water order was issued Aug. 19, she didn't realize the tap water was unsafe.

"We haven't been boiling ours," she said. "We don't barely go to the store so we don't see the signs. There's signs that are up there with old dates on them, so we didn't know which ones to believe."

Drinking untreated river water can lead to a host of stomach and gut problems.

"My kids get cramps," said Moneyas, who also gets sick from drinking the smelly, brown-tinted water that flows from local taps when the treatment plant is not working.

The tap water is supposed to be safe for bathing, but Bushie isn't totally convinced. When he got pink eye, a doctor told him it was from swimming in the river.

"There's still kids getting it, even though the swimming season is over," said Bushie, who suspects the kids picked up pink-eye germs from the river water flowing out of their bath taps.

Moneyas said the band is applying for a radio station licence, which should make it easier to tell community members about boil-water orders.

Hollow Water was one of 117 First Nations in Canada under a drinking-water advisory as of Sept. 30, including two others in Manitoba. That means residents on one out of every five First Nations either had to boil drinking water for a minute or more to kill germs or their water was contaminated with chemicals that make it unsafe even if boiled.

Parents forced to boil water on wood stoves exacerbate their children's asthma, according to a doctor who works with aboriginal communities.

Many First Nations are in worse shape than Hollow Water -- its treatment plant is not even on the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada high-risk list.

It took a month of searching for the waterline break that made the Hollow Water reservoir run dry before someone mentioned to Peebles that two teachers' houses closed up for the summer had been leaking water -- one so badly it was no longer livable.

It drives him crazy when community members don't inform him right away about leaks that force his crew to toil around the clock to keep the broken system going.

"These guys, they don't realize how much they make us work."

Back at the treatment plant, Peebles was mystified when the reservoir still didn't fill up after he shut off water to the teachers' homes.

Later in the day, Bushie stumbled on an even bigger problem.

Leon Moneyas had previously reported water dripping under his house, but before anyone fixed it, the trickle became a small stream, flowing from under the foundation, that he could hear from his bed.

"It sounds like a waterfall under my head."

Peebles estimates the community was losing 75,000 litres of water a day from that broken pipe.

"This is the main problem right here," he said as he shut off the water pipe feeding the house.

In the garage housing water trucks that fill home storage tanks, recent University of Manitoba engineering graduate Bushie walked around in the dark because the lights weren't working.

The band has trouble finding an electrician willing to drive out to the community three hours northeast of Winnipeg.

Fortunately, there's still electricity in the treatment plant next door, but the aging electronic control panels are shot, so processes that should be done automatically must be handled manually.

Meanwhile, the firefighting pump is on top of the reservoir -- a design flaw in older plants -- so there's a risk of oil leaking into clean drinking water.

The First Nation can't get approval from Canada Mortgage and Housing for new homes because it can't guarantee enough water to serve the families who will move in.

"The water plant is dictating a lot of our growth because we have a housing shortage... We have a waiting list of more than 100 people, and we're only building maybe five houses a year. We'd like to build 40-unit housing, but how can we, when our plant can't even meet the demand of what we have now?" asked Bushie.

Former Chief Ian Bushie got tired of waiting for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to come up with $2.5 million for treatment plant expansion, so he started using funds the band receives from the South Beach Casino to get started.

Thinking outside the box got him nowhere. Because Bushie didn't follow government protocols, the project was nixed and the First Nation had to start all over again, collecting bids this fall for a feasibility study on treatment plant expansion.

In the meantime, Peebles and Denelle's father Paul Bushie use their 20 years of experience with the failing water treatment plant to keep it running.

"They'd make MacGyver proud," Denelle chuckled wryly, evoking the TV series about a secret agent who could solve big problems with hairpins and duct tape.

These stories were partially funded by a journalism award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2010 A1

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