Viewpoint: Sask. rural water sources need different cleanup process

The reverse osmosis filters at the Yellow Quill First Nation's water treatment plant.

This article was published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix on October 3, 2016. However, it is just as relevant today as it was then.

By Dr. Hans Peterson

Saskatchewan cities “import” great quality water from the Rocky Mountains via the South Saskatchewan River and, indirectly by the Buffalo Pound water treatment plant through diversions from Lake Diefenbaker.

Unfortunately, many small municipalities and First Nations communities in Saskatchewan do not have good quality source water. Indeed, rural Saskatchewan has some of the poorest quality raw water sources anywhere.

In terms of global water quality, we are right at the bottom. So much so that our provincial government felt it was necessary to condition our residents to accept drinking poorer quality water than most other people in the world.

Specifically, the Saskatchewan Guideline for Total Dissolved Solids (TDS — a measure of the amount of salt) was changed from Canada’s – and the rest of the world’s — guideline of 500 mg/L to 1,500 mg/L. Without this change most communities in the province that use groundwater sources would never meet our regulations. Saskatchewan people have just been expected to get used to drinking salty water.

While high TDS is not a health concern, it often imparts a taste to the water. Today there are no concrete guidelines in place for aesthetics. Taste and odour have been forgotten by both provincial and federal regulators, until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proclaimed that he wanted safe and potable drinking water for First Nations.

What about residents in rural municipalities? Many small communities in Saskatchewan are shrinking and cannot any longer afford to support their old water treatment plants, much less invest in modern water treatment facilities that can meet technical water quality requirements as well as provide water that is aesthetically palatable.

There are many components other than salt in our tap water. The average person in Saskatchewan would be surprised to learn just how many contaminants there are in ground water typically found here. These compounds include iron, manganese, ammonium, arsenic, hydrogen sulphide, a gas that smells like rotten eggs, and methane, another gas that has no smell.

There are also other compounds that are critical to successful water treatment in Saskatchewan — the removal of bio-available compounds and nutrient sources for bacteria, as well as the removal of dissolved organic carbon. Without proper treatment, bacteria can and will grow in treated water reservoirs and distribution systems, right up to your tap. Some of those bacteria can cause diseases.

This is an exceptional, but not insurmountable problem. However, we ask communities that have poorer raw water sources than cities to accept shortcut water treatment approaches, using versions of technologies that cities use.

There’s nothing inherently problematic about using conventional technologies on high quality city source water. But when you apply those technologies on poor quality water, the result is often far less than ideal.

Simpler and better solutions exist. These modern treatment systems are needed for rural water users.

Success in water treatment will not come without a thorough understanding of the physics, chemistry and biology of the water. The problems are many, but by using a reverse osmosis membrane we can split the water, moving the problems to one side and pure water to the other.

In conventional treatment, all the water is treated. What we drink is everything. This may be OK when high quality raw water sources are used, like in the case of Saskatoon and Regina and most other cities. However, the federal government has gone so far as to label many of our local water sources as “untreatable.” Some 15 years ago, “untreatable” raw water at Yellow Quill First Nation caused the Department of Indian Affairs to support a two-year project to try to get rid of the “un” in un-treatable.

The Integrated Biological and Reverse Osmosis Membrane (IBROM) treatment process was developed 2002-03. This process can treat even the poorest quality raw water sustainably and produce tap water of 10 to 100 times better quality than what is possible using conventional treatment (adding chemicals and filtering the water, like cities do). The head operator for Yellow Quill’s IBROM plant and I presented the IBROM development at the United Nations headquarters in New York in May 2005.

There are now 16 First Nations in Saskatchewan and one in Alberta producing some of the highest quality tap water in the world using the IBROM process. So there is proof that very poor quality water can be treated most effectively, economically and sustainably.

Hans Peterson represents the Safe Drinking Water Foundation, a not-for-profit public interest charitable organization.

No community needs to put up with unsafe, poor smelling and tasting tap water in 2018!

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