ÎYÂRHE NAKODA – A proposed water system extension east and west of Mînî Thnî will pick up about 25 homes on the community’s pipe water distribution, eliminating private wells previously under boil water advisories.
The water main extension, in its early design phase, is part of a large-scale upgrade to improve access to clean drinking water after Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation underwent a series of long-term boil water advisories from 2001-2005 and 2006-2014.
“It takes some homes that are on wells or cisterns right now off truck-haul delivery and gets them tied into the water distribution system, which is much more reliable and safer in terms of potability,” said Blair Birch, director of capital projects and public works with Stoney Tribal Administration.
“There were a few boil water advisories and a combination of issues related to that. That was kind of the impetus behind this is to deal with these boil water advisories and poor water quality that was available to the community.”
Health Canada logs boil water advisories in communities across the country. In 2021, environmental health officers investigated wells and cisterns across Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation to come up with a remediation plan to address unsafe drinking water.
“It’s kind of a three-pronged approach depending on where the home is, what the problems are, and what their current service system is,” said Birch.
Tying homes into pipe water delivery was deemed the best solution to deal with problematic wells and cisterns.
“It eliminates the needs for truck calls for cisterns and eliminates wells which can be a real problem in the area because it’s difficult to find good, safe water that can be treated for potable use throughout the community,” said Birch.
“It’s just difficult to find a good aquifer that doesn’t have some nasty stuff in it. There’s a fair number of wells which have been drilled throughout Morley (Mînî Thnî) that have encountered some challenging contaminants – barium is one of them.”
Health Canada’s Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality references studies linking barium ingestion to adverse effects on blood pressure in animals and humans, and chronic oral exposure to barium is strongly associated with kidney-related issues.
“The kidneys are considered to be the major target for barium toxicity,” reads the document. “In humans, renal failure has been observed following exposure to high levels of barium in poisoning events; in animals, kidney effects are considered the most sensitive health effect associated with chronic oral exposure, especially in mice, the most sensitive species. For these reasons, an HBV of two mg/L (milligrams per litre) was derived to be protective of the general population, based on kidney effects from a study in mice.”
In some underground wells, however, drinking water may contain more barium than the two mg/L set by Health Canada, which can be difficult to treat from the residential level.
“It’s difficult to treat and deal with house by house and that makes it very challenging as a potable water source,” Birch said.
Other factors such as poor surface drainage, clogged well screens and issues with maintenance also contribute to overall water quality.
According to Stoney Health Services, over 1,000 people living in Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation have made damage claims through a federal class action, known as the First Nations Drinking Water Settlement, due to boil water advisories in place from Nov. 27, 2001, to Aug. 2, 2005, and again from Oct. 20, 2006, to March 21, 2014.
In March of this year, the health authority held a three-day settlement signing blitz at the Bearspaw Youth Centre in Mînî Thnî (Morley), where 200-300 people submitted claims each day, with reasons ranging from having experienced skin irritation to more serious health issues including organ failure and cancer.
Most of the Nation’s water infrastructure was built between 1999 and 2008, except for a water line north of the townsite, across the Bow River, which was constructed during an oil and gas operation in 1978 and later sold to the Nation to be used for residential purposes.
The Nation’s water system is broken into five supply areas, including east, north and central Mînî Thnî, with separate water supply systems in Eden Valley and Big Horn.
The reservoir in Big Horn has potable water storage capacity of 910 cubic metres, the reservoir in Eden Valley has storage capacity of 1,040 cubic metres and three reservoirs serving Mînî Thnî have a combined storage of 3,145 cubic metres.
According to a 2011 report, National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems, the number of homes served by pipe water in Big Horn was 16 out of 45. The number of houses served in Eden Valley was 13 out of 116 and the number of homes served in Mînî Thnî was 66 out of 795. About 234 homes had water hauled in and other residences relied on wells.
The water distribution system across the First Nation has expanded since then. In Mînî Thnî, it covers the core area of the townsite, including the schools, health centre, administration and post offices, youth centre and various other buildings as well as homes east and north of the community.
Birch said the Nation plans to further extend and upgrade its system north of the Bow River and build an additional 1,000 cubic metre reservoir to serve the area. Water distribution will also expand south of the Trans-Canada Highway, serving homes and public works facilities along the way.
The project is in the preliminary design phase, Birch noted, and a request for proposal is expected to go out to tender after November, with construction anticipated to start on the east and west extension in spring 2024. The work is funded by Indigenous Services Canada.
In Big Horn, the Nation began work this spring to tie all 48 homes in the community to its water system, in addition to the health centre, public works building and other facilities, with an estimated completion date of June 2024.
In Eden Valley, Birch said the Nation is planning to connect all homes to pipe water by 2027, as well as rebuild the community’s water treatment plant, which burned down in a fire last year.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.