Regional and Rural Development - November 2014
While popular images of Newfoundland and Labrador are replete with pristine lakes and rivers, rural communities across the province face ongoing challenges surrounding their public drinking water systems.
Dr. Kelly Vodden and her team have been working to get to the root of potable water issues in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Dr. Vodden is a member of a group of Memorial University researchers (community-based, government and academic) focused on rural and regional development.
An associate professor (research) with the Environmental Policy Institute and Division of Social Sciences at Grenfell Campus, Dr. Vodden’s interest in drinking water issues began with a community-based study in Indian Bay in the spring of 2012, which led to a province-wide study that began in the winter 2013.
Dr. Vodden and her team of colleagues from both St. John’s and Grenfell campuses decided to tackle the worldwide challenge of providing safe, clean drinking water to all citizens, starting in Newfoundland and Labrador. The team recently released an eye-opening report.
The research summary report identifies risks and challenges influencing drinking water quality and availability in rural areas, particularly Newfoundland and Labrador communities of 1,000 residents or fewer.
By engaging government and community partners, including Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador and the Professional Municipal Administrators group, throughout the project, the researchers expect the research and recommendations will lead to concrete actions to benefit towns and communities with drinking water challenges.
The report doesn’t point to a single challenge; rather, the affected communities face a multitude of complex, intermingled issues. Source water quality and quantity; public perception, awareness and demand; policy and governance; and municipal infrastructure and operations all affect the integrity of the province’s drinking water supplies and distribution systems, and ultimately the health of its population.
Misconceptions surrounding public drinking water in the province proved to be one of the biggest challenges. Dr. Vodden and her team discovered that many residents, and even community leaders, were not aware of the issues surrounding their tap water. The common public perception of an abundance of fresh water means residents do not consider access to clean water a primary concern. Furthermore, the financial costs of accessing a source, protecting it, providing appropriate treatment and maintaining water-related infrastructure are not well communicated. As a result, there is a direct impact on how the public behaves in and around their current watersheds and in their drinking water choices.
Dr. Vodden notes that citizens may misjudge their tap water based on aesthetics. Discolouration is frequently misinterpreted as a sure sign of contamination. Chlorine taste is also a concern. This causes residents to seek out alternative sources of drinking water such as untreated roadside springs or bottled water. In some cases, residents were surprised to discover that, despite seemingly unsatisfactory qualities, their municipal water tested safe for consumption and that their alternative sources posed a greater risk.
“The presence of E. coli indicates that there is recent fecal contamination of a water supply. E. coli or other fecal bacteria can cause serious gastrointestinal illness. In a recent, related study in the Indian Bay area, a roadside spring commonly used for drinking water had E. coli present when water samples were taken. A partnering community organization posted signage about the results to increase awareness of the risks associated with untreated water supplies…”
Concerns also exist, however, about the tap water in rural communities. Dr. Vodden’s study shows that in many smaller communities, water operators were untrained or undertrained, lacking the skills necessary for effective management of drinking water systems. In addition to needing the right tools and training required to perform the job effectively, many communities’ communication strategy for issuing and removing boil water advisories fell short. Dr. Vodden says that community members should be made aware when and why an advisory is issued and notified in a timely manner when it has been lifted. Lack of consistent and adequate communication often results in misinformation and mistrust in public water systems, their operators and town staff/elected officials. Further exacerbating the situation, many small communities remain on a boil order for long periods of time. Others are concerned about high levels of disinfectant by-products that are produced when chlorine reacts with organic materials in the water supply. These by-products have been linked to increased cancer risk with high exposure.
Dr. Vodden’s research is supported by Memorial University through the Harris Centre RBC Water Research and Outreach Fund. RBC Foundation made the $800,000 investment in 2009 through its RBC Blue Water Project to fund workshops and studies on drinking water. More than a dozen studies have been carried out to date, including Dr. Vodden’s research. RBC Foundation's donation was in support of the Memorial’s Dare To fundraising campaign and, at the time, was the largest philanthropic contribution it had made to an educational institution in Atlantic Canada.
The research has been further supported by the Mitacs Accelerate Internship program, funding six internships and facilitating collaboration with industry partners.
The research completed by Dr. Vodden and her team is an example of Memorial’s Public Engagement Framework in action. By working with government and community partners throughout the research process, and approaching the issue from the community’s perspective, the report provides a crucial guide for rural communities in addressing public drinking water issues. Next steps may require substantial funding to replace degrading infrastructure and for new technologies and management approaches as well as further research. Acquiring the means and resources for communities and the province to fulfill these next steps may take time; however, Dr. Vodden says that addressing the needs of our rural communities and their public drinking water systems can begin today.