By Trevor Johnson
Located almost 200 km northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, Saddle Lake Cree Nation has close to 10,000 members, with just over 6,000 who live on-reserve. The community is the second largest First Nation in Alberta and has been a meeting place for the Cree Nation for over 200 years. The community is home to Grammy Award winning artists Northern Cree, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Doreen Spence.
Up until recently, Saddle Lake suffered from poor water quality, like nearly two thirds of Canada’s First Nation communities. As of July 2017, there were 102 long-term (over a year) and 48 short-term water advisories in place at First Nations across Canada. Some communities in Alberta have been under such advisories for many years.
Wasted water and an inadequate facility
The community draws its water from Saddle Lake, which has 25-30 ppm of organics, as well as large algal blooms in the summer. The old water treatment plant relied on outdated treatment technologies that fouled consistently and required the heavy use of chemicals to treat and disinfect the water.
The water is also cold, especially in winter, which lowers the effectiveness of some treatment processes. High contamination levels required large quantities of treatment chemicals. This cost more than $15,000 every month, growing from less than $1,000 per year when the old plant was built in 1982.
Even after treatment, water distributed by the old plant was among the worst in the country. Community members were so used to the poor water quality that it just became a normal part of life. Nearly half the people in the community required medical attention for gastrointestinal issues.
“The previous system was very high maintenance, and you were always doing calculations. You had to keep watch,” said Carl Shirt, plant manager at Saddle Lake’s water facility. Constant monitoring in the plant meant he couldn’t attend to other issues.
In 2011, Saddle Lake upgraded its underperforming water treatment system to a Sapphire Integrated Biological Reverse Osmosis Membrane (SIBROM) water treatment system, fed directly from Saddle Lake. This project replaced the outdated treatment technology and expanded the facility to provide water to up to 10,000 residents. The plant has two trains, each capable of producing up to 2,300 litres per minute.
There are three core treatment phases in a SIBROM system: biological filtration, reverse osmosis membrane filtration, and re-mineralization to optimize pH. The process removes troublesome contaminants, such as the blue-green algae found in Saddle Lake, and produces biologically stable water.
The biological portion of the process acts as a pretreatment step, which results in the reverse osmosis membranes being highly resistant to fouling. The membranes at Saddle Lake have not required a chemical cleaning in over six years of operation.
Since much of Saddle Lake’s distribution system was poorly constructed, having biologically stable water run through the pipes is necessary to decrease the chance of post-treatment, in-pipe contamination. Drinking water now meets or exceeds all Health Canada guidelines.
Installation of the new SIBROM system immediately decreased the amount of chemicals required, as anti-scalants and coagulants are no longer needed. Only 20 litres a week of chlorine is needed for disinfection, resulting in a drastic cut in operating costs.
With current expenditure data, it has been estimated that the cost to produce water is roughly two to three dollars per 1,000 litres, when taking into account operating expenses and amortization of the plant’s capital cost.
The new plant is also able to handle Alberta’s tough winters, as it can continue to treat water at just below freezing temperatures, minimizing water-heating costs even before treatment can begin.
Since the plant can be optimized, Carl Shirt is working with Sapphire to adjust operations as needed based on demand. Being able to read key plant data over the Internet also means updates and routine maintenance can be performed quickly and alerts can be received remotely via smartphone, tablet or computer.
Trevor Johnson, P.Eng., is with Sapphire Water International Corp. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s February 2018 issue.