Fact Sheet - Understanding the Results of the National Assessment

The National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems is now complete. With 4,000 water and wastewater systems inspected, it is the largest and most rigorous assessment of its kind ever conducted in Canada. The results of this assessment will help the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada continue to ensure that all First Nation communities have access to safe, clean drinking water. While these results are fairly complicated and technical in nature, this reference document will help explain how to interpret them and what they mean to First Nation communities across Canada.

The results of the National Assessment have been rolled up into a national report, eight regional reports and individual reports for each of the 571 First Nation communities visited. The results provide a detailed record of the various types of water and wastewater systems used in First Nation communities across the country (piping, wells, truck delivery) along with detailed evaluations of the systems using a risk rating developed by the Department. Finally, both cost estimates and overall recommendations are provided by the independent contractor to assist the Department with its future financial planning and decision-making processes.

The National Assessment Process

Neegan Burnside, the independent contractor that conducted the assessment, visited and assessed 4,000 on-reserve communal water and wastewater systems as well as other systems (such as wells, cisterns, and septic systems) serving 571 First Nation communities. From September 2009 to November 2010, 1,300 water and wastewater systems, 800 wells and 1900 septic fields were inspected.

First Nation communities assisted with gathering information on existing water and wastewater systems and coordinating site visits. Discussions with band officials, operators and others during site visits further contributed to the current knowledge of community systems and requirements.

Risk

How is risk evaluated?

An overall risk assignment is given to water and wastewater systems by measuring five factors that could lead to possible problems: the system’s design (30 per cent), its operation and maintenance (30 per cent) as well as the level of training and certification of its operator (20 per cent), the reporting and record keeping (10 per cent), and an analysis of the water source and the wastewater effluent receiver (10 per cent).

The National Assessment provided a risk assessment rating for each of the water and wastewater systems in the participating First Nation communities. No other municipality, province or territory in Canada measures risk as comprehensively as the Department does, with the department’s risk assessment methodology taking into account an extensive set of factors that could lead to problems with water and wastewater systems.

The risk findings help the department direct resources where they are needed most. The information also helps First Nations to address problems as they happen and anticipate potential problems before they arise.

It must be noted that the system risk number provided in the results is only a measure of overall system management risk, not of water safety or quality. In many cases, systems identified as “high risk” are providing safe water to communities. They may be considered “high risk” for several reasons, ranging from insufficient record keeping to inadequate operator certification.

The majority of high risk systems serve a small population.  Water systems in remote communities are 2.5 times more likely to be high risk than low risk. While the National Assessment identified 314 water systems as high risk, 161 water systems in 116 First Nation communities were under Health Canada Drinking-Water Advisories (DWA) as of February 2011. These DWAs may be impacting up to 18,900 people, which is approximately 3.9 percent of the total on-reserve population cited as 484,321 in the National Roll-up.

Cost Estimates

What are the water protocols?

The water protocols are standards set by the Department for the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and monitoring of water and wastewater systems on reserve. These standards provide direction to First Nation Band Councils on issues like the treatment and management of water and the design of systems or potential waterborne illnesses.

The National Assessment results include cost estimates and projections provided by the independent contractor. These can be divided into two larger categories: the cost of upgrading First Nation water and wastewater systems to meet the Department’s water protocols and the cost of meeting the population and housing growth in these communities over the next 10 years.

The financial figures in the National Assessment results are estimates and projections to be used as a tool for future financial planning. They are not actual costs. As the contractor notes in the report, the National Assessment’s 10-year growth estimates are based on a series of assumptions. For example, the assessment recommends full piped systems for many communities where such a system may not be the most cost-effective or sustainable option that also meets the health and safety requirements. Another example is future growth requirements which are based on a projected housing growth of 4,400 houses per year. This is significantly higher than the average net growth of 1,700 houses per year over the past 5 years.

Community Reports

Following on-site inspections, engineers produced a Community Report for each First Nation that describes current service methods, system performance, operating practices and compliance with applicable standards. The reports also include a serviceability analysis to identify and recommend appropriate water and wastewater services for each community. These include the cost of upgrading existing systems to meet the Department’s water protocols and the cost of meeting the population and housing growth in individual communities over the next 10 years.

Recommendations

The results of the National Assessment include recommendations made by the independent contractor to help the Department in addressing the water and wastewater needs of First Nation communities across Canada. These recommendations are focused into three groups: infrastructure, capacity and operations, and standards and regulations.

The recommendations will help provide the Department and First Nations and other stakeholders with a starting point in addressing the needs that were identified in this unprecedented assessment and range from increasing support to the department’s successful Circuit Rider Training Program to establishing regulations for water and wastewater systems on reserve.

While the independent contractor’s recommendations and estimates provide a high-level overview which will assist in overall planning, this information does not replace the more detailed feasibility studies conducted by the department to assess and price specific projects.  First Nations will continue to identify priority projects for their communities as part of the capital planning process for the First Nation Infrastructure Investment Plan.

Date: July 14, 2011