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Water Today Title October 25, 2021

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Update 2019/6/8
First Nation Water


brought to you in part by

Tecta PDS

By Suzanne Forcese

Most Canadians living in urban areas give little thought to the water that flows freely from the tap for normal household requirements or the wastewater that disappears down the drain and the toilet. Nor are most Canadians aware of the complex system of treatment, distribution and collection that makes it all possible. The people that are responsible for the system and its critical role require formal training and hands-on work experience to gain the knowledge and certification to work in this sector. The smooth functioning of water systems in remote communities is even more challenging.

For small and remote rural communities water is not taken for granted. In many First Nations communities it is impossible to drink, cook or bathe in regular tap water. As of May 31, 2019, there are 58 long-term drinking water advisories (Government of Canada). Events such as storms, fires, flooding, mudslides and power failures can cause a community to report a water advisory. Water in its raw form is extremely multi-faceted and transforming it to meet potable standards required by regulatory bodies like Health Canada and provincial agencies requires science, equipment, technology, funding and qualified employees. The mere act of a water operator quitting or an unqualified operator not following a prescribed protocol is enough to throw a community into a water advisory.

Health Canada Potable water standards include:
  • 4 log (99.99%) removal/inactivation of viruses
  • 3 log (99.99%) removal of Cryptosporidium and Giardia
  • 2 separate treatment processes, usually filtration and disinfection
  • Maximum 1 NTU turbidity in the finished water supply
  • All materials in contact with the water will meet NSF 61 requirements
"Selecting the right water source and water treatment equipment for a specific raw water is like a doctor reviewing a person's blood and other test results then prescribing a cure. That person's life depends on the right decision," WaterToday learned from George Thorpe, P.Eng., from Bi Water Pure. Trained water treatment plant operators are essential to safe drinking water. Certification takes 2-4 years depending on the facility or system requirements that the operator oversees, according to BC Water & Waste Association (BCWWA).

BC's water sector work force carries out functions that are critical in protecting human health and the environment. Without adequate treatment and safety precautions, communities are exposed to waterborne disease.

Conclusions about the sustainability of the water sector workforce in a Labour Market Information Report from BCWWA, include:
  • A shortage of skilled workers
  • Lack of education opportunities to meet technical skills, meet certification requirements and satisfy evolving industry needs
  • Resources are required for new individuals to fill the workforce gaps
The Report anticipates that by 2025, 53.1% of the estimated current total workforce will be new hires for the water and wastewater sector.

Thorpe adds it becomes even more complex in remote communities. Very much like the shortage of doctors and teachers, trained water treatment operators are difficult to find and retain. "The top operators move on to larger communities paying more money." More than one- third (36.3%) of the water and wastewater sector workforce is 50 years of age and over, thus adding another problematic dimension. The baby-boomer retirements are driving significant workforce vacancies and potential knowledge loss. In response to retirement-related vacancies it is being observed that most new hires tend to be young, inexperienced, uncertified workers.

There is a need for succession planning at the sector level that includes knowledge transfer. Despite concerns expressed about impending retirements and the associated knowledge loss, only 27.4% of employers surveyed have established career development programs, and only 18.4% of employers have instituted succession planning for senior management positions.

With the ever increasing demand for qualified workers, opportunities for new entrants to the sector can be prohibitive. There are high turnover rates among inexperienced staff and difficulty filling vacant positions due to the difficulty in progressing to the next operator levels. Barriers include lack of adequate training and resources for mentorship. There is a significant cost involved to develop in-house training and a loss of work costs to send staff to external courses.

The demand is obvious but public awareness about careers in the water sector is low. Interestingly, the gender demographic for water and wastewater careers is very heavily off-balance compared to other sectors. Women represent only 13% of the workforce compared to a 48% average in other sectors.

Recruitment and retention of new workers also impose another difficulty. A substantial number of employers have found the necessity to downgrade positions and hire staff into entry-level positions because they lacked the training and experience to be hired as certified operators. With a one year experience the worker can be on board for training. However, there is a risk and a burden associated with operators without certification.

The BCWWA report states: " The water sector must prepare for the future by increasing the pool of eligible applicants from which employers can hire."

In remote communities there is another urgent issue that needs to be addressed. As water plants and equipment age the systems can't keep pace with the technology. It is harder to find replacement parts when they break down. There are, as of May 31, 2019, 394 water and wastewater projects to repair, upgrade or build infrastructure, and 51 feasibility studies to determine infrastructure needs. (Government of Canada)

An infrastructure project in a First Nation community takes 3-4 years to complete following the steps of planning, construction acquisition, operation, and maintenance. Thorpe states that "there are a large number of small rural communities that need help funding upgrades to their water treatment system, either due to boil water advisories or population increase."

For Thorpe, who grew up in small town Saskatchewan, there is an awareness that "small and rural communities are more in touch with the socio-hydrological system which emphasizes the interactions between human and water processes." At the same time however wages for water plant operators in remote areas need to be comparable to those of the larger municipalities otherwise the small remote communities will continue to live with the risks involved with unqualified personnel. Those risks can be life threatening and for many First Nations communities, access to safe drinking water will remain a human rights issue.


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