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Sewer superhero

Troubleshooters keep aging plants operating

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FISHER RIVER -- At midnight on a bitter Manitoba winter night when the sewage plant on a remote First Nation breaks down, who you gonna call?

Troubleshooter Ken Mattes.

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He has installed a water plant for the Canadian Forces in Egypt and built warm flush toilets for soldiers cleaning up radioactive debris from a Soviet satellite that crashed in the Arctic.

"We had running water in a week."

Now retired from the military, Mattes, 64, has turned his attention from war zones to the challenges of his final frontier -- supplying clean water on First Nations reserves.

The superhero of water and sewer services doesn't wear a cape, but if you sign up for his optimistic band of trainees, he'll give you a really nice T-shirt.

Winnipegger Mattes is president of the national Circuit Rider Trainers Professional Association, named after the itinerant preachers who used to travel on horseback to minister to settlers.

He and his staff are available to diagnose water and sewer problems on Manitoba First Nations 24 hours a day. When a phone consultation isn't enough, they hop in a truck or on a plane to troubleshoot in person.

Mattes is an expert at keeping aging treatment plants going until INAC comes through with funding for upgrades, but sometimes he gets to help commission a new plant.

Unfortunately, no amount of mechanical tinkering can solve the problems in Island Lake, where half the homes have no plumbing to begin with.

The Circuit Rider Training Program operates in Manitoba through the West Region Tribal Council and trains First Nations citizens to look after their own water and sewage-treatment plants. It starts with math upgrading and moves on to classroom and distance education to help trainees become certified water plant operators.

But it's the on-the-job training, watching pros such as Mattes troubleshoot, that's the most valuable.

Manitoba's training program is so successful, it has been copied around the country and graduates are in demand for jobs off-reserve in municipal water and sewage plants.

"I think they're envious" of the First Nations training program, Mattes said. "I'm very proud of what we've accomplished."

It's ironic that Manitoba is at the forefront of water plant training when the same province has the highest number of reserve homes that don't have running water.

When plants break down, First Nations residents often end up having to boil their tap water while the problem is fixed. But Manitoba's operators are so clever at holding aging plants together, fewer than five per cent of communities here typically have a drinking-water advisory, compared to almost 20 per cent nationwide.

"We've virtually eliminated boil-water orders in the province of Manitoba," Mattes said.

He's not counting boil-water orders on Hollow Water First Nation because that situation cannot be resolved until INAC funds a bigger water-treatment plant. Mattes is also well aware that thousands of Island Lake residents have to haul their drinking water in buckets because their homes have no plumbing, but he thinks Manitobans also need to hear the good-news stories.

On Fisher River Cree Nation, two hours north of Winnipeg, he introduces some of his proteges. Water-plant operator Dave Cochrane is proud of their sparkling new $16-million state-of-the-art water and sewage treatment plants and lagoon, which are replacing individual wells and septic fields. He rhymes off the technical details as he gives visitors a tour of the water plant, with its membrane nano-filters to remove iron from groundwater.

Mattes figures the drinking water coming out of the Fisher River plant is purer than Winnipeg's. Future plans include bottling the water for homes too remote to be hooked up to water pipes.

Meanwhile, Fisher River's new sewage plant has an innovative system for removing phosphorus from waste water to protect nearby Lake Winnipeg.

The INAC funding system creates winners and losers. When a First Nation eventually makes it to the top of the list and gets a new water plant, it's likely to be high-quality these days. Meanwhile, other First Nations waiting their turn limp along for years with dangerously faulty old plants or homes with no running water at all.

Fisher River identified the need for water and sewage plants in 1997, but it took more than a decade to win approval through INAC. The community's school, arena, personal-care home and some houses now get piped water, but the First Nation needs at least $10 million more to hook up the remaining 200 homes that are reasonably close to the treatment plant.

"We'll keep pressuring the government to move our project up on the list," said director of operations Sam Murdock.

Cochrane, 38, used to work in policing and then he drove a van for dialysis patients, but he loves the challenge of his new job.

"The good thing is, let's say you get your... certification, you can go anywhere in Canada."

Sixty per cent of water-system operators on Canadian First Nations are now certified, up from 40 per cent in 2005. The remainder are typically completing their classroom training while they continue to get on-the-job experience.

Manitoba's 63 First Nations employ 195 water-system operators. They're often on-call evenings and weekends to keep water and sewage plants running around the clock.

The Provincial Circuit Rider programs might eventually expand to delivering regional water services under the direction of a new national First Nation Water Commission, if aboriginal leaders persuade Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan to include a commission when he rewrites a proposed drinking-water law.

As Mattes helps Fisher River workers fine-tune the new water treatment plant, he builds up their confidence and sense of belonging to a team. It's clear one of the secrets of his success as a trainer is his ability to connect with the aboriginal trainees. His wife and kids are Métis -- in fact, his daughter teaches aboriginal art at Brandon University.

"The culture is very well-respected in our family," Mattes said.


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



University-trained engineers and band leaders are proving that education sometimes solves as many water problems as cash. For the full story, see

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2010 H5

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