Clean, safe drinking water is still out of reach for many British Columbians, especially in First Nations communities, according to a new report from the Council of Canadians.
The report found there were 579 drinking-water advisories in B.C. as of January, more than any other province or territory. A total of 1,838 advisories were recorded across the country.
The advisories include orders to boil water and to avoid consuming or using tap water, as well as precautionary advisories about water quality. Some apply to whole communities, while others apply to individual buildings such as schools and restaurants. In B.C., 79 per cent of the advisories were from the Interior. There were 35 advisories in First Nations communities. Only Ontario reported more advisories from First Nations communities than B.C.
Emma Lui, a Council of Canadians water campaigner who wrote the report, said natural resource development, including pipelines and fracking projects, are putting the province's clean water supplies at risk.
"B.C. really needs to be cautious about current threats to drinking water," she said. The report cited the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects, as well as the Site C dam, as sources of concern for future water safety in B.C.
Ms. Lui is calling for a national water policy that would enforce drinking water standards across the country.
But others say poor infrastructure is responsible for B.C.'s drinking water problem, not natural resource development.
Dr. Madjid Mohseni, a University of British Columbia engineer who works on clean water projects with rural and First Nations communities, said a number of factors explain why B.C. has more drinking water advisories than other provinces, including its large number of small water systems.
He said many of B.C.'s 3,000 water systems are in small, remote communities with limited resources.
"For them to finance a water treatment system that is going to provide consistent, good quality water, it is going to cost a lot of money per household," he said. "Some really simply don't have the capacity to make any progress."
According to listings on the province's regional health authority websites, there were 505 boil-water advisories in B.C. as of Monday. That's a very slight decline from the 530 reported in 2008, the last time a comprehensive survey of Canada's drinking water advisories was published. Of those, 69 have been in place in since before 2000.
Dr. Mohseni said the province's small island communities have an especially hard time paying for water treatment, because of the additional cost of shipping supplies.
As an example, the tiny community of Dodge Cove, located on Digby Island near Prince Rupert, has been under a boil-water advisory since 1988. In 2011, the community voted against installing a new clean water system because of unaffordable user fees.
Dr. Mohseni added that many B.C. communities, particularly First Nations communities, have traditionally taken their water from rivers and lakes rather than groundwater reservoirs. That's especially true in places where water comes from the mountains, as mountain waterways are often assumed to be pristine. But without treatment, Dr. Mohseni said, surface water has a higher chance of being contaminated than groundwater.
Linda Pillsworth, acting executive director for community health and wellness services with the First Nations Health Authority, said the province has made progress in improving drinking water in First Nations communities. She said that includes investments in new treatment systems, operator training, and more frequent water quality monitoring.
"Based on the sheer number of water systems that we have … there of course needs to be additional funding," she said. "I don't think we're there yet, but I think there have been significant improvements."
But Dr. Mohseni said what's really needed are policy changes around drinking water treatment. He said health guidelines need to be the same across the province, but it's unfair to demand the same level of monitoring in tiny communities as in large cities.
"You cannot apply the same standard to a small community," he said. "If the issues can be resolved with a Toyota Camry, you don't need a Cadillac."
The B.C. Ministry of Health did not respond immediately to a request for comment.