Philip Gauthier sticks his head down a water well he has not used in about a dozen years. The hole is dark, but he can see water about six metres down. He needs it. Mr. Gauthier is among the thousands of people in north central Saskatchewan without running water thanks to an oil spill in the North Saskatchewan River caused by a ruptured Husky Energy pipeline.
Mr. Gauthier must now jerry-rig a way to get the water to the surface. His old pump went bust, so he bought a new one and about 45 metres of electrical cords to power it. He hopes the Red Lion pump will be enough to suck the water to the top so he can fill jugs for flushing the toilet, washing dishes and sponge bathing.
"If I don't get that, I just wasted $300," he said Tuesday. If that doesn't work, he is going to tie some rope to a pail and draw water from the well the old-fashioned way.
"There's water down there. I gotta get it somehow," he said, laughing but not joking.
Mr. Gauthier lives in the country, just outside Prince Albert, Sask. The city pulls its water from the North Saskatchewan River, but it was contaminated after about 200 to 250 cubic metres of oil spilled into the waterway last week. On Tuesday, it was revealed that Husky waited 14 hours after first detecting anomalies in the system before stopping the flow of heavy crude in the line and notifying the provincial government. The company said on Wednesday it now has 400 people working to clean up the spill and deal with affected wildlife.
Prince Albert stopped drawing water from the river on Monday and turned to water in storage. It is now churning through the water from a retention pond – an emergency supply expected to dry up on Friday.
And so to conserve water, Prince Albert cut off supply to the Prince Albert Rural Water Utility on Sunday, four days after the spill. That left three rural municipalities without running water. Mr. Gauthier's household is one of about 1,000 homes hooked up to the system. By way of comparison, about 40,000 people in Prince Albert rely on the city's water. The city cut off its rural neighbours in order to stretch supply for its own residents.
"That's our first priority," Jim Toye, Prince Albert's city manager, said on Wednesday.
Ken Danger, the rural water utility's general manager, has been left dealing with frustrated rural residents. The outfit is hauling treated water from other areas to storage tanks, hoping it will flow through the utility's distribution network for residents on the north side of the river.
"It is going to work good for them," Mr. Danger said on Wednesday.
For those on the south side, the utility is organizing contractors to provide door-to-door delivery. The elderly and people with health issues are first on the list.
"It is a huge project," Mr. Danger said. "There are some people who will never get water until the city turns us back on."
Prince Albert residents have been gathering on the North Saskatchewan's banks to watch the contaminated water flow through the city. Tan-coloured blobs that look like foamy mud pies float by, with some of the gunk collecting on the banks and catching on the vegetation.
North Battleford, a city of about 15,000 people, shut off its water intake on Friday and has since switched to well water. Prince Albert's backup plan is more complicated: It put down 30 kilometres of hose linking the city to the South Saskatchewan River. Officials hope the system will be running by Friday – later than originally planned. Rural communities will be added back to the system if there is enough supply, Mr. Toye said.
Scores of affected rural residents have wells on their property. In fact, some households are unaffected by the spill because they already relied exclusively on well water. Others use wells as backup systems or for livestock and gardens.
Cornelius and Karien Kemp are among those hoping their well, which they usually use just for gardening, will fill the void. The Kemps do not know, however, if it is potable. Mr. Kemp took samples this week to the health region's administration building to be sent on to Regina for testing.
The family is also considering buying a spare tank or a UV filtration system that could cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000.
"There are definitely some costs," Mr. Kemp said. "But it is a disaster – what are you going to do?"
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said Wednesday he expects Husky to live up to its promise to cover the costs tied to the spill. They include not only cleanup, but also the costs of providing potable water and covering the loss of business for car washes and laundromats, which have had to shut down, he told reporters.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gauthier's makeshift water system worked. The pump is powerful enough to draw water from the well. He is able to fill up jugs but not properly hook it up to his house.
"It takes a while, but it works," the 76-year-old said. "I can survive on it."
With a report from The Canadian Press