Ontario funds training for widely uncertified First Nation water system operators

Of the 776 First Nation drinking water systems included in the University of Guelph's research, 66.4% experienced at least one drinking water advisory during the 11-year study period. Photo Credit: Dmitry Naumov, AdobeStock.

Just one month after the Ontario government announced $1.8 million to provide additional training for First Nation drinking water system operators, a November 2017 national research paper from the University of Guelph revealed links between an operator’s lack of training and the average length of the reserve’s drinking water advisories.

Under a partnership between the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation and the Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence, the Ontario government is dedicating the new funding to entry-level courses for drinking water operator, training plans, and continuing education options for some First Nation operators.

According to the University of Guelph paper, A decade of drinking water advisories: Historical evidence of frequency, duration and causes, led by Professor Ed McBean, the new Ontario funding is clearly needed. The research from the university’s school of engineering found that as of 2011, only 42% of Canada’s First Nation water systems requiring a fully certified primary operator had one in place. Additionally, 81% of these systems used a secondary operator, but only 20% of them were certified to the required treatment classification.

“Despite efforts to provide training for First Nations operators through programs such as Circuit Riders in Ontario, in many cases there is limited ongoing support for drinking water operators,” McBean’s research states. “The correlations between operator certification and historical [drinking water advisories] identified in this study support the recommendations of other researchers to allocate more funding for operator training, certification and retention,” he adds.

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Part of the First Nations operator training dilemma lies in funding, McBean found. The recently dissolved Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada department only provides 80% of each facility’s operation and maintenance costs, with the result that First Nation communities are expected to source the additional 20%.

“Given the significant allocation of funds in the new budget to resolve this issue, the opportunity exists to develop a new strategic approach,” the research paper states. “The technical capability already exists to collect and analyse data, but the findings should be translated into action. An up-to-date nationwide database of advisories and system information would allow operators to learn from historical events and encourage risk management within their community.”

The school’s research also discovered that when First Nation reserve operators were fully certified, advisories in the system were more often associated with operational issues (40%) than health (33%) or quality issues (25%). But, with water systems where the primary operator had no treatment certification, a higher proportion of advisories were issued for health causes. Systems where the certifications of the operators were reported to be unknown had the longest average advisories overall.

The University of Guelph research analyzed data from 1,526 advisories issued across 776 First Nation drinking-water systems between the beginning of 2004 and the end of 2014. Researchers then compared primary and secondary operators’ certification level to their system’s treatment and distribution classification.

“The results also showed that the average duration of advisories was generally higher in systems where the primary and secondary operators were reported as being non-existent, not required, or not certified for the treatment and distribution system classification,” the research states.

Photo Credits: Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
Photo Credits: Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Of the 776 First Nation drinking water systems included in the research, 515 (66.4%) experienced at least one drinking water advisory during the 11-year study period.

The majority of advisories were associated with Level I and II treatment systems. When comparing operator certification, municipal-type agreements were again the only group in which less than half of the systems experienced an advisory.

Even when the operator was fully trained, 73.4% of systems experienced one or more drinking water advisories over the study period. Still, significant portions of advisories were associated with systems where there was no operator, or the operator was not fully trained for the treatment level.

Advisories of longer duration were also more common in systems with smaller total pipe length. Additionally, the average age of the systems did not vary significantly with the duration of drinking water advisories, remaining around 25 years across the range of advisory lengths.

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