Real-time monitoring could reduce First Nations water advisories by one third, study finds

The Government of Canada has committed to lifting all long-term drinking water advisories on reserves by March 2021. Figures shown in infographic are as of March 22, 2018. Photo credit: Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Researchers at the University of Guelph have found that the majority of drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada are precautionary, and that installing real-time monitoring systems could reduce the number of these advisories by more than one third.

Drinking water advisories are issued because of equipment malfunction, inadequate disinfection and high microbial counts, said professor Ed McBean, lead author of the study and Canada Research Chair in Water Supply Security.

“While many of the drinking water advisories are in place for long periods of time, they do not necessarily indicate unacceptable water quality,” said McBean, who worked on the study with Kerry Black, a former University of Guelph PhD student and now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia.

“Installing real-time monitoring systems would allow operators to identify issues and possibly make corrections or repairs very quickly, thereby reducing the number of precautionary-based drinking water advisories as well as the frequency and duration of all drinking water advisories.”

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Between 2004 and 2014, 64% of First Nations in Canada experienced at least one drinking water advisory; as of September 2017, 144 advisories were in effect in 98 First Nations communities.

The federal government has committed to eliminating drinking water advisories on First Nations within five years.

Published in the Journal of Water Supply: Research and Technology-AQUA, the study analyzed extensive data on drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across Canada. The researchers also interviewed many community members and First Nations organizations in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

“In 2015, 78% of boil water advisories were issued on a precautionary basis due to problems with drinking water equipment or processes,” said McBean.

Study lead Ed McBean is a professor at the University of Guelph and holds the Canada Research Chair in Water Supply Security. Photo credit: University of Guelph.

According to McBean, boil water advisories related to equipment and process challenges are generally issued before any actual decline in drinking water quality and are in place until conditions return to normal.

Real-time monitoring technology could significantly reduce precautionary advisories by clarifying whether problems exist with water, equipment or processes.

Monitoring systems consisting of a series of probes can provide real-time information on flow rates, turbidity, pH, water temperatures and free chlorine – all possible threats to human health.

“Something like turbidity – cloudiness or haziness in the water – is dangerous because pathogens can reside in it,” said McBean. “If you can detect an increase in turbidity, you can quickly increase your disinfection. This advance detection alerts operators to take preventative measures that keep the water supply safe while reducing the number of advisories if no water quality problems are detected.”

First Nations often have just one water system operator who may have more than one job, said McBean. Monitoring technology keeps an eye on the system even when the operator is not watching over it.

Although real-time monitoring would significantly reduce drinking water advisories, particularly precautionary ones, eliminating advisories in First Nation communities will require a multi-faceted approach, said McBean.

Previously, McBean and his collaborators explored the need for proper training for water system operators in First Nations communities.

“Addressing the issue of water security in Indigenous communities and reducing the number of drinking water advisories is a top priority,” said McBean. “It’s a serious problem. Everyone has the right to safe and reliable drinking water.”

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  1. Mr. McBean,
    I can agree to having remote monitoring is good but the monies to install, operate and maintain this could be better spent on O&M funding and upgrading old existing technologies that don’t work. You know ISC funding only covers 80% of O&M. We FN’s have good operators that are challenged with working long hours on a plant where automation is down and no funds to repair or replace it. Operators salaries at a minimum. It could be better spent to have proper equipment on hand like extra chemical pumps, chlorine and tabletop instruments. I see the cost of having online analyzer and the O&M cost is not always covered. As in every profession there may be some operators that don’t always do what is expected of them. Frustrations with trying to operate a water plant that wasn’t designed properly in first place or no funds for chemicals, repair or replacement. What is an opertor to do. I know and see may of the situations our operators are in. We have electronics in the newer plants that constantly breaking down and it cost big monies to fix or replace those systems. Remote monitoring can be abused too. It has alot to do with attitude to operate and maintain from all involved. There are so many factors. In my surrounding area remote monitoring would not remove the DWA. To be tell FN communities they need remote monitoring is wrong. We have to fix other things first. Operator salaries, O&M.


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