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Fraser Health orders chlorination of Chilliwack water

“Council is concerned about how adding a disinfectant such as chlorine, could affect the quality of our award-winning water,” says Mayor Sharon Gaetz.  - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS
“Council is concerned about how adding a disinfectant such as chlorine, could affect the quality of our award-winning water,” says Mayor Sharon Gaetz.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

Chilliwack has won awards for having the best-tasting drinking water in the world.

Now health officials say the chemical-free drinking water system must be chlorinated.

Dr. Marcus Lem, medical health officer for Fraser Health’s east region, was happy to take a big sip of Chilliwack tap water while making a presentation to council at the Tuesday meeting.

But he said he wouldn’t let his daughter drink it.

Three incidents of E.coli contamination in Chilliwack’s water system in the past five years were “ample evidence that we should be looking into doing something,” Lem said.

If it was just once, he wouldn’t be as concerned. Two reports were in the Mount Shannon area of Little Mountain and one was on Promontory Hill.

As a result, new conditions will be required for the city’s municipal drinking water permit, namely that a secondary disinfectant, chlorine, will have to be added.

In 1997 and 1999, Chilliwack won awards from the Canadian Water Resource Association for having the “best drinking water in Canada,” and in 2005 it won fifth best drinking water in the world, from Berkley Springs World Water Competition.

While Fraser Health reps noted Chilliwack’s “exceptional” record of ensuring high-quality drinking water, they said projected population increases over the next decade will put pressure on the water infrastructure, and the associated risks to the water distribution system.

“What we are telling you right now is that you need this because you are growing in population,” Lem told council.

Water sampling with the current system, although done twice as often as is required, with 42 samples a week, is not enough for a system of Chilliwack’s size, the health official said.

It could take up to eight or nine days to tell if contamination was present in the system, in a worse case scenario.

The fact that E.coli was found more than once “probably means you have fecal contamination all the time,” he stated.

“I like to drink water from a stream,” Lem recounted for council. So did one of his colleagues, who went on to contract giardia.

“You can’t do that when you have 80,00 people,” he said. “You’ve got an excellent system. We want to make it better.”

Shifting to continuous chlorination is going to cost the city $1.5 million in upgrades, and it doesn’t have a choice in the matter.

“That’s a pretty big download,” commented Mayor Sharon Gaetz.

It will cost about $100,000 a year to maintain the new system.

The incidents of contamination in recent years were a result of specific incidents with water reservoirs, which were quickly fixed by diligent city staff, said Gaetz.

“This kind of news is coming to us as rather shocking,” she said about chlorination being imposed.

City officials fired off a news release shortly after the meeting.

“Protecting public health and our resources are top priorities, but council is concerned about how adding a disinfectant such as chlorine, could affect the quality of our award-winning water,” Gaetz commented in the release.

Coun. Jason Lum said “another unacceptable risk” was the prospect of incinerating waste by Metro Vancouver affecting the local airshed, and he urged Lem to make an official statement on the risk that garbage-burning posed for the region.

“You have truly picked a battle with the community,” said Coun. Chuck Stam, who also wanted to know how many people actually turned up sick from the last three contamination incidents, but there was no data available.

“No one is getting sick from our water,” he said.

Coun. Sue Attrill called the decision to move to chlorination, “rash” and suggested more testing.

The mayor is also adamant about looking for alternatives to chlorine.

“We have asked that the FHA allow a review of all options before ordering the addition of a secondary disinfectant in to our drinking water system,” said Gaetz in the release after the meeting.

City staff have a stringent and comprehensive water quality sampling program, with an emergency standby chlorination system in place. But the water testing only accounts for .0000003% of water in the system.

Secondary disinfection is common practice in Canadian municipal drinking water systems the size of Chilliwack’s council was told. But Coun. Stam countered that demanding chlorination because everyone else does it, was the “shabbiest of answers.”

FHA reps said they will exercise their “legislative responsibility” to protect public health and “impose” secondary disinfection, since it is considered the only “viable” way to ensure minimal microbial content.

“Once you reach a certain size, you need different measures and a slightly different structure.”

Lem said he could appreciate council’s point of view and community pride in the water. Some of the councillors were visibly angry.

“But I can tell you the risk is very, very real,” he said, adding that when the kidneys shut down from E.coli infection, “it’s not pretty.”

The health officer said he foresees the Chilliwack water incidents as “continuing” to happen as result of the multiple pathways of potential contamination and the limits of the system, since the backup chlorine is only released once contamination is detected.

“That’s what I find worrisome.”

Council advised FHA that the citizens of Chilliwack need to be given the opportunity to comment on the chlorination of their drinking water through a public consultation process, and Dr. Lem said they would be there in support.

The “byproducts” of chlorination, namely the chemical odour and taste, are usually among the public’s concerns, Lem added, and Fraser Health officials will be on hand at the public hearing to provide information and “allay fears” of citizens.

Lem actually complimented Chilliwack on its delicious water.

“I will say this, it is very tasty water, and I would like to commend you on it. But even though I am going to drink this I would never let my daughter drink it,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s bad, but as a public health officer and parent, it’s my responsibility to try and make things as safe as possible.”

jfeinberg@theprogress.com

Twitter.com/chwkjourno

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