B.C.'s water tests still substandard

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Last Updated: Wednesday 7 June 2000

B.C.'s water tests still substandard, review says review says

None of the recommendations in a report finished 15 months ago are implemented yet. Paul Willcocks, Sun Legislature Bureau Vancouver Sun with Southam News

Peter Power, Canadian Press / CLEANUP IN WALKERTON: A worker sprays a holding tank in Walkerton, Ont., Thursday.

VICTORIA -- Every time Mary Clarkston turns on her kitchen tap she wonders how badly the water is contaminated by her neighbours' septic tanks.

More than five years ago the provincial government came to test the water in the tiny Vancouver Island community of Kye Bay. They flushed a dye tablet down the toilet in the house across the street, Clarkston recalled Tuesday.

The next day the water from her tap ran bright green.

For the past five years the people in this Vancouver Island town have been living under an order requiring them to boil drinking water.

"It's inconceivable to me that in this day and age we can live like this in Canada," said Clarkston, who has four children.

Her comments came on the same day a major review of water quality released by the legislature's public accounts committee concluded there are still no maintenance requirements for septic systems in B.C.

More than 15 months after Auditor-General George Morfitt called for the standards in a sweeping report on water quality in the province, none of his recommendations has been fully implemented, the committee reports.

It's a situation that is even more alarming in the wake of nine deaths in Walkerton, Ont., from E. coli-contaminated drinking water.

Kye Bay's problems are the result of a tangled web of responsibilities that allowed inadequate septic systems to be installed on small lots near wells and thwarted attempts to hook up to a sewage-treatment plant only two kilometres away, Clarkston said.

But Kye Bay is not alone. Public health officers in B.C. issue an average 220 orders a year requiring communities to boil drinking water to deal with parasites or bacterial contamination.

The threat to water quality posed by agriculture operations -- a prime suspect in the Walkerton E. coli outbreak -- prompted three recommendations from Morfitt, who noted that 75 per cent of poultry, 72 per cent of hogs and 67 per cent of dairy cattle raised in the province are located in the increasingly populated Fraser Valley.

Morfitt also said B.C. needs legislation to protect groundwater supplies, which provide water for about 20 per cent of British Columbians. B.C. is the only Canadian province without specific groundwater protection legislation.

But 15 months after the Morfitt report, the government is still considering whether to draft a law to protect groundwater, the committee was told.

Liberal Rick Thorpe, who chaired the committee, said it's making "slow progress."

It's critical that the province accept Morfitt's call for a single agency in charge of drinking water protection, he said.

"People are going in 26 different directions," said Thorpe. "Somebody has to be in charge."

Clarkston said people in Kye Bay don't need a government report to know water protection isn't working.

"Five years ago we proved that we were polluting our drinking water," she said.

Kye Bay houses that are used as cottages in the summer are rented every winter to young families. "None of these people are ever told not to drink the water," she said.

People who do drink it report diarrhea and cramps, she said.

Clarkston said she has no doubt that the problems of Walkerton could happen in B.C.

An Ontario government document suggests that water and sewage systems across that province need a "staggering" $9 billion in improvements.

But an Ontario program to fund such water and sewer upgrades is ending this year, and that province's agriculture ministry report says many municipalities can't pay for the work on their own.

"Infrastructure is old and requires substantial future investment," said the February 2000 report.

And Federal Environment Minister David Anderson warned Tuesday that thousands of abandoned wells in Canada have the potential to channel farm pollutants directly into groundwater supplies.

Anderson said the issue of abandoned wells is just one of the threats to water quality that must be examined in the wake of the Walkerton tragedy.

"Walkerton has clearly sounded the trumpets," the minister said in an interview Tuesday. "It's a wake-up call for all of us to inspect the systems we have and determine their safety."

From his experience as a member of a special commission that examined the effects of oil exploration in the Fraser Valley ten years ago, Anderson said he knows that abandoned water wells pose a significant threat. The wells were drilled by both heavy industry and farmers.

"The water used to be pulled out by the wells and when it's abandoned, if it's not properly plugged and filled, it simply becomes an injector of surface water into the underground aquifer," he said.

"That's fine if the surface water is clean, but if the surface water is polluted by chemicals or E. coli, then you pollute the aquifer."

He encouraged inspectors in all provinces -- drinking water and groundwater are provincial responsibilities -- to ensure abandoned wells have been properly capped.

Anderson said governments need to examine the connection between factory farms and water quality.

It's widely suspected that the E. coli bacteria entered Walkerton's water system as manure that was washed from farmers' fields by an unusual amount of rainfall.

"There's no question we've had dramatic escalation of factory farming in this country," Anderson said, noting that the hog population in Manitoba is expected to more than quadruple in the next few years.

"The factory farm is happening and with that, we'd better make sure we don't wake up to a problem later," he said. "It's better to consider the potential problems first.

"Water and water waste systems are at capacity in many rural communities. Due to their limited tax base, these municipalities are having difficulty financing any expansion of their system."


Residents of Creston in southeastern B.C. have been advised to boil their water after a provincial testing lab found coliform bacteria in the supply.

Don Leben, mayor of the Kootenay town, said that the advisory had been issued at noon Tuesday.

He added that health officials there would not usually order an advisory after just one sample turned up the bacteria, but they've been extra cautious lately.

"Obviously, this time we've gone from step one to step six and skipped the steps in between," Leben said, attributing the change to the deaths in Walkerton.

Creston, with some 5,000 residents, is also home to Kokanee beer, the Labatt product marketed largely on the glacial purity of the water used in its brewing.

Leben said the brewery draws its water from the Creston water supply, but that the Columbia Brewing Company, the Labatt subsidiary that makes the beer, cleans and samples its water a second time.

Brewery officials could not be reached for comment.

Leben said he expects the advisory to be lifted by Friday.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 08, 2000

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