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How Yellow Quill First Nation ended a nine year boil water advisory

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Conventional treatment of poor quality raw water

Yellow Quill was using conventional coagulation, upflow clarification and downflow granular filtration processes to treat its horrific raw water. This and other conventional water treatment processes may work fairly well on reasonably poor quality raw water sources. But, they were never intended to treat such poor raw water sources as Yellow Quill’s.

If you try to use conventional water treatment processes on poor quality raw water, some of the contaminants get removed, but not all. The resulting mix of particles and dissolved compounds is then chlorinated. The water flows into a treated water reservoir where it is pumped into the distribution system. Residual contaminants remain in the water. If they are suspended in the water you will have them in your tap water. If they settle to the bottom you will, at times of high water demand and low reservoir levels, again have them in your tap water as they get stirred up.

Dissolved contaminants will remain in the water regardless of high or low water levels. When the treated water reservoirs at Yellow Quill were cleaned there was a foot of black ooze covering the bottom of the reservoirs which had passed through Yellow Quill’s water treatment plant.

I have suggested to Health Canada that examinations of treated water reservoirs should be part of their water testing. One easy way of making this a part of routine testing is to toss a coin into each reservoir. Then, the operator can from time to time lift the hatch and note if it is visible. This can provide an estimate of water treatment process performance. If the coin disappears within a month, it is time for the community to get a retrofit or a new water treatment process.

Yellow Quill’s water woes

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In total, Yellow Quill’s boil water advisory lasted nine years. Four elderly community members filed a class action law suit against the federal government and their plight was discussed in the House of Commons and covered by national media.

water treatment plant in the winter
Yellow Quill First Nation’s modern IBROM plant.

Ultimately, two federal government staff listened to Yellow Quill’s plight and took decisive action to do something about it. With the involvement of Yellow Quill councillors, the community, the environmental health officer and a senior engineer and a scientist, solutions to Yellow Quill’s water woes were examined. Ultimately a 22-month pilot and research project was started. This led to the development of the integrated biological and reverse osmosis membrane (IBROM) treatment process, which produces water that meets all global regulations and WHO recommendations.

Chiefs and band members inside plant
The opening of James Smith Cree Nation’s IBROM plant in March 2015. Chief Justin Burns is third from the right. Photo: Ron Merasty, Prince Albert Grand Council Tribune

Since Yellow Quill’s IBROM process lifted its boil water advisory, there have been more than a dozen other IBROM plants constructed in Saskatchewan and Alberta, including Saddle Lake and James Smith Cree Nations. “We are very happy in the community here that we have a facility such as this (the IBROM) to produce safe drinking water for our community. It is a stepping stone for the people of James Smith and also for other reserves to come here and look at our plant and, hopefully, get something like this in their home communities so that unsafe drinking water will be a thing of the past,” says Justin Burns, the Chief of James Smith Cree Nation.

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