Dale Presly hopes the Walkerton tragedy will never repeat itself, but the operator for the Sandwick Water Works Improvement District harbours serious concerns about what he believes is a faulty pump.
He feels the Puntledge River intake, or Pump No. 4, is no longer a reliable source of potable water. In fact, based on water quality and low water conditions that existed last summer, he believes the intake poses a threat to public health.
The pump is located near the swimming pool at Lewis Park, which is downstream from agriculture operations. If contaminated surface water enters a public water supply, as it did in the Walkerton tragedy, death can result.
“It’s the agriculture runoff that’s the big concern,” Presly said. “Generally in a water system, you don’t mix surface and ground water. It’s an unwritten rule. Well water has different pH characteristics.”
The Puntledge intake is a surface water source. Unlike well water, surface water requires a multi-barrier treatment approach to make it safe to drink. This, says Presly, explains why the Island Health Drinking Water Treatment for Surface Water Supplies Policy, known as the 4-3-2-1 water treatment protocol, is in place.
“Pump No. 4 should be decommissioned, unless it’s upgraded to a full 4-3-2-1, but we’re talking close to $2 million to do that,” Presly said. “We need another well, essentially.”
The Sandwick District provides water to about 680 lots in and around Mission Hill. Some lots are within the City of Courtenay. The district uses about 80 million gallons of water per year. Last year, Pump No. 4 supplied about 18 per cent of the area’s water. Two other pumps supply ground water.
The Sandwick board has applied to drill another well near Mitchell and Huband. Re-activating another pump or opening a connection with Courtenay are also options.
“We’d like to get rid of the river one (Pump No. 4) too,” said board chair Mike Butler, who has been with the district since 1963.
“We started off with one (well) at the corner of Headquarters and Dingwall, and it’s still running… We have until 2017 to comply with 4-3-2-1 regulations on water use. We want to get out of the well by that time. We’ve been getting some prices on drilling a new well.”
Cost estimates range from $60,000 to $100,000.
“It’s like a 6/49 ticket,” Butler said. “You can drill a well but you might not get anything out of it.”
In a 2000 incident, E. coli-contaminated water proved fatal in Walkerton, Ont., where seven people died and another 2,300 became ill. A report concluded the water supply had been contaminated with manure spread on a farm near the town.
Presly says Walkerton was the catalyst for many water protection strategies used in Canadian jurisdictions, and demonstrated what happens when heavy rain, agricultural runoff, poor system design and a lack of governance occur at once.
“Walkerton was a chlorination problem,” Butler said. “We have the same problems. Last year, Hydro let very little water down the river. Our river pump won’t start between two hours before high tide and two hours after high tide. For (several) hours a day we’re not able to pump anything out of the river at number four.”
Presly says he has a “fiduciary responsibility” to advise the Sandwick board about implications of decisions that could cause harm or contradict legislative requirement.
A 2012 report from McElhanney suggests Pump No. 4 is at the end of its useful life, but Presly says the five-person board dismissed his concerns.
“The water system in the Comox Valley is not a straightforward game,” said Presly, who served on the Sandwick board in years past. Noting two of five trustees work for the district, he suggests “a question of governance” could be at the heart of the matter. “In my view the link between clean water and good governance is an important part of the equation. The board was not interested in hearing about my pointing out that it’s inconsistent to have trustees who function as employees. I’m in a tough situation. I just don’t have a good feeling about this whole thing.”
From Butler’s understanding, there could be a conflict of interest between board members and those working in the field in large districts. Small districts, however, generally cannot afford to have several board members and a separate person doing the work outside.
“We have the same concerns (as Presly), but Victoria didn’t seem too perturbed about small districts having board members doing on-call stuff,” Butler said. “The only problem they (Victoria) have is with conflicts of interest.”