The War on Water in Peterborough County

Photo by Rob87438 via Wikimedia Commons.

In early October, Peterborough Utilities, which handles water and electrical services in Peterborough County, tweeted “We have discovered that contractors filling vacuum trucks are illegally taking water from our fire hydrants and causing dirty water. If you see evidence of this, please let us know, call the police or take a picture and send it to us. This act could contaminate our drinking water.”

Peterborough Police Communications Coordinator, Lauren Gilchrist, says the only complaint on this issue was on October 23. The complaint was regarding a private contractor using a fire hydrant in the area of Victory crescent to fill the truck.

“Through the investigation it was determined that this contractor has a permit with the Peterborough Utilities Group to use the hydrant therefore no offence was committed,” Gilchrist said in a statement to Arthur.

If a person is found guilty of taking water from a hydrant without a permit, they could be charged with Theft Under $5000, along with Mischief Under $5000 if they are found tampering with it.

Peterborough Police encourages residents to report any suspicious people or activity to the non-emergency line at 705-876-1122. Details of the situation including date, time and location, along with any license plates are helpful for the investigations.

Despite having a permit to fill up the trucks, the other issue brought up in the tweet is still at hand: the dirty water. Patrick Delvin, Vice President of the Water Utility Services for Peterborough Utilities says “there is a little bit of confusion there.”

When you open up a fire hydrant all the way, especially if the person is not trained, “a very large volume of water under very high pressure…shoots out of the hydrant, but as it travels through the distribution main, it scours the pipe and causes discolouration in the water,” said Delvin. “It’s the velocity.”

Discolouration in water usually comes in a rusty brown tinge.

When someone calls Peterborough Utilities about discolouration in their water, Delvin says they ask them to “turn on their cold water tap and let it run out,” for 10 to 15 minutes. If the colour does not go away after this, a water distribution operator is sent to the home to investigate further.

Delvin, who went to Trent University for a joint major in Environmental Science and Biology, and has worked for the Ministry of Environment, says “it’s basically iron oxide that is being scoured from a water main pipe.”

Delvin says water complaints are very infrequent in Peterborough. “In 2017 we only received 20 water main complaints for the city in the whole year.”

With a population of 81000 in Peterborough, that number is relatively low.

“We have a staff of 10 people who maintain water distribution and another 15 at the water treatment plant,” Delvin said. “25 people are working around the clock to protect our water quality.”

The water supply from Peterborough is from the Otonabee river, which can get up to 26°Celsius according to Delvin. Due to this, there is a possibility the water may have an odour or an earthy taste, which is perfectly safe.

“We test our water 50000 times at any given year,” says Delvin.

The Peterborough Utilities website says river algae living in the Otonabee River can produce a compound which has an earthy taste. Whether or not one notices an earthy taste is dependent on their water sensitivity.

Peterborough Utilities has been using chlorine in the water since 1916 Some people sensitive to the water may experience a chlorine taste though this can be solved by leaving a jug of tap water in the fridge with room for air and allowing the chlorine taste to evaporate.

Though the city of Peterborough may have very little instances of water discolouration, that is not the case at Curve Lake. Just 30 minutes from Peterborough, this First Nation community part of the Mississauga Ojibwe First Nation has long awaited clean water.

Curve Lake First Nation was added to the federal government’s list of reserves promised to have a clean water system in three years. The Liberal government has eliminated water advisories on 40 reserves as a result of this.

Maryam Monsef, the Liberal MP for Peterborough-Kawartha, made a promise to finally put an end to the drinking water advisory in place at Curve Lake. In an article from the Peterborough Examiner, Curve Lake Chief Phyllis Williams said she expects some waiting to do.

Currently, Curve Lake residents often hear warnings to boil their water before drinking.

The solution is a $25-million filtration plant built from scratch, which will be on a tight deadline if it is to be completed on time.

Sean Conway, who grew up in Curve Lake First Nations and ran for Peterborough-Kawartha MPP for the New Democratic Party, has put water quality as one of his top priorities.

Conway, a local musician and now Co-Chair of Eastern Council for the Ontario NDP, says “our society as a whole has put too much emphasis on the commodification of water.”

Conway doesn’t believe people should have to pay for water, like we do in Peterborough.

“We don’t realize in our everyday, the importance of water to our being,” Conway said. “We don’t think about how water reacts with humanity.”

He encourages us to rethink the way we look at water, and realize it has to be a human right rather than a commodity.

Living in a Western world, we are often privileged to have water, he says. That’s not a luxury for all.

“Too much conversation is around access when it should be about what is the definition of water and our relationship to it,” said Conway.

“There is no access to reliable clean water at Curve Lake,” Conway said. “The First Nations weren’t designed to be in their own communities.”

Due to the water situation at Curve Lake, they are unable to put up a dialysis machine, a machine used to filter blood and remove excess water for people with kidney conditions. Despite older people in the community needing this machine, they are left having to drive into the city.

Despite this, Conway says there are other Indigenous communities at a crisis level which should be addressed first and foremost.

“Curve Lake can figure itself out right now,” he said.

Conway says he is skeptical of Justin Trudeau and whether he actually wants to do anything for First Nations.

“Everybody wants to feel good and happy about reconciliation but when it comes down to the actions outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation commission, how many have they actually gone through on?”

Conway continued, “If you want to talk about reconciliation you can take your Gord Downie jean jacket off and put your money where your mouth is.”

Conway believes the right way forward is to transform reserves into complete communities and to have respect for our water.

“We’ve got to be respectful of it going forward because we haven’t been respectful of it.”

He also stresses that a public utility needs to stay in the hands of the public.

“There’s never been a positive instance when a private company takes over water. Look at Nestlé in the Guelph area,” Conway said. “It’s horrifying.”

The CBC reported the Nestlé corporation is taking 7.6 million litres a day of water, on expired permits.

“Water is life,” Conway said. “I know that phrase gets thrown around a lot, but we must do everything we can to defend water.”