Drinking-water tanks in the Island Lake region failed safety tests nearly a third of the time last year, a dangerous result that doesn't surprise First Nations chiefs.
In Wasagamack First Nation alone, new Health Canada data show the reserve's water cisterns tested positive for coliform bacteria 75 per cent of the time — the highest rate among the province's 42 reserves with homes served by water tanks.
"It surprises me in that it shouldn't be the case, but it doesn't surprise me considering our lack of resources," said Wasagamack First Nation Chief Sharon Mason.
The band has 135 homes with cisterns — big water tanks installed under or next to homes and filled weekly by water trucks. Another 40-odd homes without any indoor plumbing are slated to be retrofitted next year with cisterns and sewage tanks.
Last year, the reserve had $2,700 to spend for cleaning cisterns. This year, the federal government provided $10,500, in part because so many new cisterns were installed. But Mason said her staff is too busy trying to make regular water deliveries using trucks that frequently break down and trying to keep the reserve's 40-year-old, overcapacity sewage-treatment plant running to make sure the cisterns get cleaned twice a year.
"They're so overwhelmed with the fact that our sewage plant is shot," said Mason. "We have people with sewage running into their bathtub."
Clean drinking water has been an intractable problem on reserves where some homes still have no proper indoor plumbing, water plants often fail, boil-water advisories are common and high illness rates are increasingly linked to the lack of reliably clean water.
Recently, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the northern chiefs association, said it has begun working with a group of lawyers on a possible lawsuit against the federal government over what MKO calls a systemic failure to provide clean drinking water on reserve.
Nearly 10 per cent of cistern tests done on Manitoba reserves last year earned a failing grade. That's a little better than past results. In 2009, 11 per cent of Manitoba First Nations cistern water samples failed safety tests.
"There's progress being made going forward. We're starting to see a drop in the numbers," said Rick Orto, regional manager for environmental public health with Health Canada's First Nations and Inuit health branch. "Island Lake is coming along. As rapidly as we like? No, it's never as rapidly as we'd like."
Though coliform bacteria is detected regularly in cistern tests, E. coli is rare, said Orto, and a family is immediately told to stop drinking from their cistern if the potentially deadly bacteria are found.
Only eight First Nations — including Gambler, Swan Lake and Ebb and Flow — earned a 100 per cent pass rate.
On Manitoba First Nations, there are nearly 5,100 cisterns providing indoor water to homes. In recent years, as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has tried to slowly solve the lack of indoor plumbing that has plagued hundreds of homes in the Island Lake region, 522 houses have been retrofitted with water cisterns and sewage tanks so indoor plumbing could be installed. Another 152 homes should be done next year.
But the move toward more cisterns is seen by Island Lake chiefs as a stop-gap measure until proper pipes can be installed to as many houses as possible. There is no sense when, or if, that will happen.
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And, Health Canada's data as well as research by University of Manitoba soil scientist Annemieke Farenhorst, suggest cisterns are typically far more prone to contamination than traditional water pipes.
Farenhorst, who has spent the past several years studying on-reserve water quality, looked at 119 water samples taken on three reserves and found an average of 57 E. coli colonies per 100 millilitres in cisterns. That's 63 times higher than the amount of bacteria found in pipes on reserve.
Farenhorst also found cisterns typically don't have the amount of residual chlorine recommended by the World Health Organization to stop bacteria regrowth.
And she said the frequency with which bacteria are detected in some on-reserve drinking-water systems matches that of many developing nations.
But St. Theresa Point First Nation Chief David McDougall said the recent round of retrofits have still been welcome by families that spent decades without indoor plumbing.
CISTERNS: HOW THEY WORK
Most First Nations, especially in northern Manitoba, have some combination of piped water that comes directly from the water-treatment plant and cisterns. Those are the big, 5,000-litre water tanks, either buried underground or installed next to homes or in crawl spaces, that are filled regularly by water trucks arriving directly from the treatment plant.
The cistern system is problematic for a few reasons. First, the cisterns tend to get contaminated. Data consistently show high levels of coliform bacteria and occasionally E. coli. The cisterns should be cleaned twice yearly, usually with a high-dose blast of chlorine and a pressure wash. But it can be physically tricky to get at some cisterns, and training is needed to make sure the chlorine is used properly.
New cisterns tend to be installed above ground, but older ones are underground, often made of cement or plastic that can crack or get contaminated by high groundwater levels or by dirt that gets swept in at the opening. And water trucks are often unreliable -- breaking down, freezing up or even running out of water if there's a problem at the plant. But the cisterns are seen as a reasonably affordable way to bring clean drinking water to remote, sprawling reserves where installing underground pipes would cost many millions.
Health Canada typically tests cisterns for coliform bacteria twice a year. Roughly 41 reserves have homes with cisterns. Here are some of the most worrisome results from 2014.
Wasagamack First Nation -- 41 tests, 73% failed
Canupawakpa Dakota Nation --16 tests, 69% failed
Manto Sipi Cree Nation -- three tests, 67% failed
Sandy Bay First Nation -- 51 tests, 41% failed
Roseau River First Nation -- 76 tests, 41% failed
Pauingassi First Nation -- three tests, 33% failed
Garden Hill First Nation -- 200 tests, 30.5% failed
St. Theresa Point First Nation -- 115 tests, 30% failed
Pine Creek First Nation -- 344 tests, 26% failed
Little Grand Rapids First Nation -- 66 tests, 26% failed