Blue River residents who consider their water their “claim to fame” are opposing plans by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District to add chlorine to their drinking water.
The TNRD announced at an open house recently that it would be treating the drinking water with chlorination as per permit guidelines by Interior Health. Blue River’s water system is the only system owned and operated by the TNRD that is not chlorinated.
However, residents say they want to keep it that way.
“We’ve got great water here. It’s really incredible natural water,” said Sean Cline, a resident of Blue River for six years. “I don’t want to be in a city drinking chlorinated water and showering in it, washing my face in it, ingesting it. I’ve done that and I don’t like it.”
Residents argue authorities are enacting blanket policies without taking each community’s testimony into account, or that they’re being compared to other communities like Pritchard, which has had extensive issues with its septic and water system. Others say it’s a waste of money in an area that doesn’t need it, and the focus should be on other communities, such as reserves in British Columbia that don’t have clean drinking water.
The water in Blue River is clean, they said. Indeed, when welcoming visitors from out of town into their home, Sherry Holmedal said the first thing her husband Chris asks is: “Have you tried the water?”
Lee Onslow, a resident of Blue River who runs the community garden said it’s not just the taste of chlorinated water. She doesn’t want to use it in the community garden.
“The people don’t want it,” she said. “I have a sense of disappointment because there’s nothing that we can do.”
Conditions of permit
The TNRD maintains its hands are tied, as the mandate to treat the water came from Interior Health as a condition of permit (COP). In late 2008, IH placed conditions on permit that required the TNRD to complete a source water assessment, something required for every water system in IH, said Tyrone McCabe, TNRD’s manager of utility services.
An Assessment of Groundwater at Risk of Containing Pathogens, or GARP, was completed more than 10 years later and in 2019, provided five recommendations: consider a disinfection treatment for the Blue River water system; address water system leakage; install surface seals for both active wells; properly abandon two inactive wells; and ensure the wells are incorporated into the design of the TransMountain work camp.
In the mid-2020s, Interior Health updated the COP to complete the recommendations. It also noted the COP was placed under the Drinking Water Protection Act, which requires a water supplier to comply with all terms and conditions of the operating permit.
If the conditions aren’t met, the TNRD said the regional district, as the supplier, could be prosecuted, although as a last resort.
“Chlorination is the most common means used to disinfect water and protect against harmful viruses and bacteria,” Interior Health said in a statement. “Access to clean, safe and reliable drinking water is regarded as a fundamental right. Although federal and provincial governments jointly regulate water, it is water system owners and operators who are first and most directly responsible for drinking water system safety.”
The TNRD is now in the midst of completing every recommendation, including water treatment, which is expected to start as early as April next year.
To date, there has been no cost to the taxpayer for the water system upgrades, said Stephen Quinn, TNRD Director for Area B. The money has come from the Federal Gas Tax Fund for infrastructure, as well as a Community Benefit Grant from Trans Mountain.
Chlorine is a disinfectant that has wlong been used in many water systems across North America, and has been found to drastically lower the risk of waterborne infections, such as typhoid and cholera. Other ways to disinfect water, such as ultraviolet and ozone, are also available but can be costly and neither protects the water as it flows through the distribution system, posing risks of secondary infection.
A water distribution system is an ongoing project, as pipes can leak and break, causing contamination in the system and requiring repairs. Because of this, chlorine is added to the system to ensure pathogens don’t re-infect the water after leaving the well.
According to Health Canada, there are no harmful effects in people who drink water with concentrations of chlorine up to 50 parts per million (ppm)— much larger than the chlorine required to disinfect water systems. In Canada, most homes don’t have more than 2 ppm of chlorine in their tap water. For Blue River, the estimated amount of chlorine to be added is around 0.5 ppm.
“We recognize people have concerns,” said Jake Devlin, director of environmental services for the TNRD. “We recognize it’s going to change the taste of their water, but the primary objective here is protection of public health and safety. We’re responsible to provide safe drinking water to customers to their property line, and when we do, we do all the work necessary to evaluate the risks and we follow the conditions on our permit.”
However, some of Blue River’s residents say they should be offered other options. Some suggestions raised at the open house included a boil water advisory for the community, a tap at the source for drinking water before treatment and to take ownership of the water system through an improvement district.
Dustin Deuling, a Blue River resident and business owner, said he would happily comply with a boil water advisory, if it meant keeping the water system untouched. He echoed others in saying Blue River has “the best drinking water in the world.”
He also noted the community won’t just let it happen, adding they’ll try to band residents together to come up with other ideas and get a petition going to show authorities that the mandate to chlorinate is not welcome.
“We can think of alternatives,” said Deuling. “We want to explore alternatives. We’re not ready to just take this.”