Work is in progress to eliminate boiling water warnings and ensure a safe water supply throughout the province
Across Canada, 29 Aboriginal communities are still counseled on boiling water.
Before people in those societies can brush their teeth, drink a glass of water, cook food, or bathe, they have to put the water in a pot, bring it to a boil, and let it cool—just so they don’t get cold. Do not get sick from performing many of these daily activities.
Under the federal government’s commitment to permanently repeal all boiling water warnings, 132 warnings have been lifted in the past seven years.
In order for every Canadian to have clean, safe drinking water, there is still a lot of work to be done, said Steve Romaniuk, a faculty member in the School of Environmental Studies at Canador College in North Bay.
“You can see that we are going to have a lot of potential impacts and relief” from the boiling water warnings, Romanyuk said during the recent sustainability summit in Canador, which took place from May 31 to June 1.
“We consider that we can go somewhere, turn on the water fountain, turn on the tap. It is crazy to think that in our country we have places that are not.”
Much work goes into ensuring that society has access to clean drinking water, but much of the responsibility on the ground rests with water operators.
Typically falling into one of four categories – drinking water operators, wastewater operators, limited system operators and water quality analysts – these are the people who are certified to monitor our water systems, test water quality, and fix any problems that previously became bigger issues.
In Canador, Romaniuk is responsible for training the next generation of water operators.
Becoming fully qualified is a rigorous and multifaceted process that requires seven years of classroom learning combined with work experience.
“It’s like the red seal trade, really, becoming a water operator — like becoming a plumber or an electrician,” Romanyuk said. “In fact, it’s nice to be able to do both if you’re going to be an operator.”
Students begin by taking the Operator In Training License Exam (OIT), which qualifies them to perform normal operating functions in a water or wastewater treatment plant; However, they cannot be a responsible factor in general.
After one year of experience as an OIT, they can then move to a Tier 1 operator license, as long as they meet all educational and training requirements and pass the certification exam.
As they gain more education and experience, operators can work their way up the system, defining a Class 4 for each of the WASH operators.
“It’s a really important area,” Romanyuk said. “It is always evolving; it is always changing. It is really dynamic.”
Certification requirements for water operators were not always so stringent, and it took a tragedy of regional significance to bring about change.
In 2000, in the town of Walcarton, southern Ontario, more than 2,000 people became seriously ill, and six died, after an outbreak of E. coli bacteria in the community’s water supply.
After heavy rains, the aquifer became contaminated with bacteria from manure collected on a nearby farm, giving residents gastroenteritis as a result.
From the ensuing enquiry, the federal government imposed strict new water management requirements, one of which was operator accreditation.
As a legacy at the time, the city hosts the Walkerton Clean Water Center, which provides training for operators and operating authorities, as well as educational information for the public. To date, it has trained more than 75,000 people across Ontario, including operators in 133 First Nations in the province.
“It is a great center and a great resource,” said Romanyuk, who regularly travels to the site with students for professional development activities. “It’s kind of good to see a good result come out of that tragedy.”
Despite the progress that has been made, First Nations in Canada is still disproportionately affected by warnings of boiling water.
Romanyuk noted that more than 80 percent of water treatment failures in these communities are attributed to equipment failures and process failures. But a new initiative is beginning to make a positive difference on this front.
The Water Movement, established in 2021 by Calgarian Peta Malkian, is a non-profit organization of college students and industry professionals working to provide clean drinking water to all Indigenous communities.
It connects Indigenous water operators with other industry experts to help them troubleshoot problems, develop maintenance best practices, and share knowledge.
Its main feature is a video library with hundreds of step-by-step videos that guide water operators through common problems and how to fix them.
There are currently 4,900 users from 24 countries on the platform, with more joining all the time.
Since learning about the movement of water through a student, Romanyuk has filmed a number of videos for the library, which Malkian said were “some of the most popular” on the site.
For Romaniuk, the collaboration provides an extra measure of security in creating unknown “champions” who don’t always get the recognition they deserve for the important role they play.
“All of these operators we have worked with, not once during the pandemic have I heard of the frontline water operators keeping our facilities running,” he said. “It’s kind of selfless work, but it’s really important.
“Some of our students understand that, and they want to be a part of it too.”