Frequently Asked Questions - National Assessment of Water and Wastewater Systems in First Nation Communities: Release of Final Reports

National Assessment Results

Q1. Why have the National Assessment results demonstrated such a large increase in higher risk systems when compared to previous reporting done by the department?

A1. The National Assessment is the most rigorous and comprehensive evaluation of water and wastewater systems on reserve ever under taken. Between July 2009 and spring 2011, independent engineers inspected 4000 on-reserve systems including 1,300 water and wastewater systems and more than 800 wells and 1,900 septic fields serving 571 First Nation communities.

A third-party assessment of this scope has never before been conducted consistently in First Nation communities across the country. Past assessments, conducted by departmental officials as well as some reporting by First Nations, only assessed existing communal water and wastewater systems funded by the department and did not look at individual systems or at the broader water and wastewater service needs of the community.

The National Assessment provides a more complete picture of water and wastewater infrastructure on First Nations by reviewing a broader range of systems including private systems, systems belonging to Self-Governing First Nations and off-reserve systems providing services to on-reserve communities. The assessment also included the inspection of a larger number of water and wastewater systems than in the past. Over 200 more water systems were evaluated than in the 2006 inspection process.

Q2. Why are the identified financial estimates in the final National Assessment reports so high? How were the cost estimates developed?

A2. The cost estimates are high-level overviews intended to support financial planning. These rough third-party projections do not replace the departmental feasibility studies which are required to determine the pricing and specifics of water and wastewater projects.

The department will be conducting detailed studies into the National Assessment’s projected 10-year costs as the contractor has identified a large margin of error and based the estimates on a series of conservative engineering assumptions that may not be appropriate once more detailed studies are done.

For example, the assessment recommends full piped systems for many communities where such a system may not be cost-effective or sustainable. Another example is future growth requirements that are based on a projected housing growth of 4,400 houses per year. This is significantly higher than average net growth over the past 5 years of 1,700 houses per year.

Moving forward, more detailed planning will be conducted, through the processes the department has developed with First Nations, to develop appropriate, cost-effective solutions.

Q3. Does the department agree with the results of the National Assessment?

A3. The department appreciates the significant effort made by First Nations and the independent third-party contractor to conduct this complex, large and unprecedented assessment of the water and wastewater systems in 571 First Nations. The project has produced a considerable amount of detailed information. The department will be reviewing the reports and the recommendations they contain, including further analysis of opportunities for cost-effective, sustainable servicing solutions. This information will be an important resource as the department works with its partners and stakeholders to determine future directions.

The department has also developed a comprehensive action plan as an immediate response to the findings of the National Assessment and will expand it further as the department analyzes the results and engages with First Nations and other stakeholders.

Q4. Looking at the National Assessment results, how does current water infrastructure in First Nation communities compare to similar sized communities off reserve?

A4. Infrastructure in First Nation communities varies across the country. Many small and rural communities in Canada continue to rely on individual wells and septic systems. 

Safe Drinking Water Policy for Canada – Turning Hindsight into Foresight, a February 2011 report from the C.D. Howe Institute, highlighted that small communities across Canada are vulnerable to water-quality failures. According to the report, over 95 percent of drinking-water advisories were in small municipalities of 500 or less. Close to 60 percent of the First Nation communities participating in the National Assessment have a population of less than 500 people.

In 2008, there were 1,766 drinking-water advisories in Canadian municipalities. There is no central, national list of drinking water advisories.

Q5. Why are there significant differences in the percentage of reported high-risk systems in each region (i.e. Atlantic, Quebec, Alberta…etc.)?

A5. The overall risk of a water system appears to increase with remoteness, and some regions have more remote communities than others. Remoteness influences a number of aspects of running a water and/or wastewater system, including the availability of trained operators, or access to parts and repair services. The number of Municipal Type Agreements (MTAs), agreements that First Nations make with neighbouring off-reserve communities for the supply of water and/or wastewater services, also varies across the regions. Communities with MTAs tend to have lower overall water risk scores. It is also important to note that these risk numbers are only a measure of the overall system management risk and not a measure of water safety or quality.

Q6. How were the upgrade and servicing estimates developed?

A6. The independent third-party contractor projected the cost of ensuring that all First Nation communities meet the department’s current water protocols and standards and also estimated future water and wastewater servicing for communities over the next ten years.

As the National Assessment report notes, the 10-year growth estimates in the National Assessment 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 that future growth requirements are based on a projected housing growth of 4,400 houses per year. This is significantly higher than average net growth of 1,700 houses per year over the past 5 years.

Cost estimates provided by the National Assessment are intended to support planning to meet both short-term and long-term water and wastewater needs of First Nations communities. The estimates will not replace the more detailed feasibility studies needed to assess and price specific projects.

The department is working closely with First Nations to ensure that new projects identify the most cost-effective ways to appropriately meet a community’s health and safety needs. In many cases this may mean supporting First Nations in developing smaller systems, such as wells and cisterns.

Q7. How many new systems have been built recently?

A7. In the past four years, 2006-07 to 2009-10 (figures for 2010-11 are not yet finalized), 130 major water and wastewater projects were completed. These projects included expansions to existing water and wastewater systems; construction of new systems, storage facilities and pumping stations; expansion of distribution and collection networks (water and sewer pipes); and, development of subdivision lots with water and sewer servicing, to support housing. 

Q8. Why does it cost more to adhere to federal protocols than provincial standards?

A8. The department’s protocols require Operators of First Nations water systems to meet the more stringent of either the protocol’s requirements or provincial requirements (standards, regulations, codes, or guidelines). The estimates developed in the National Assessment show that this requirement to meet the highest available standard increases costs by about 20%.

Risk

Q9. Why does Indian and Northern Affairs Canada assess risk?

A9. Annual inspections of water systems, to evaluate asset condition and system risk, have been a requirement of the Protocol for Centralised Drinking Water Systems in First Nations Communities since it was first introduced in 2006. Risk is assessed in order to determine how well a system is functioning and what maintenance and repairs are required.  

Q10. How is risk assessed? What are the different categories of risk used in the National Assessment?

A10. The department measures risk more comprehensively than any other jurisdiction in Canada. The department’s risk assessments take into account an extensive set of factors that could lead to problems with water/wastewater systems.

Risk is assessed for five aspects of a water or wastewater system:

  • Water Source (drinking water) / Effluent Receiver (wastewater);
  • System Design;
  • System Operation and Maintenance;
  • Operator Training and Certification; and
  • Record Keeping and Reporting.

These five areas are each scored and a weighted average is produced. Operation and Maintenance (O&M), Operator Training and Certification, and Record Keeping and Reporting account for nearly 60 percent of the risk measured through this approach. Design risk, which accounts for 30 percent, is the only factor directly influenced by the large capital cost of building a treatment system. This highlights that although design and construction are important, once a system is built, ensuring that it continues to produce safe water for a community is dependent on system management, such as building capacity and properly training operators.

Q11. What do risk levels actually mean? If a community’s water system is rated as high risk, does that mean that water in that community is unsafe to drink?

A11. System risk scores are an overall system management risk, and not a measure of current water quality or safety. It is the risk that the system would fail to produce safe water in the event of a problem. In most cases, systems identified as “high risk” are providing safe water to communities. 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. Fourteen percent of these advisories have been in place for less than one year.

Health Canada makes recommendations to a First Nation about whether a DWA should be put in place or lifted, and the decision to place or lift a DWA rests with Chief and Council. 

A low risk system indicates that there was few or no deficiencies found when the system was inspected. Medium risk systems have minor deficiencies in several areas or major deficiencies in one or two areas. A high-risk drinking water system is defined as a system that has major deficiencies in several aspects, from technical, such as water source, design, and operation, to administrative, such as reporting and operator training. The identification of a system as “high risk” helps the department direct resources where they are needed most, and is a tool used to prevent problems before they arise.

Next Steps

Q12. How will the National Assessment results be shared with First Nation communities?

A12. The National Assessment results, including community reports, as well as the regional and national roll-up reports, will be mailed to each First Nation in both hard copy and electronic formats. The national and regional reports will be made available on the department’s website.

The individual community reports will not be posted to the department’s website. They will be made available to read at the department’s headquarter offices, on an individual basis, following a careful review of the reports for privacy concerns. This review of all of the individual community reports is expected to be completed by the end of June 2011. Requests to access individual community reports before that date will be directed to the respective First Nation. 

Q13. What is the Government of Canada going to do to address the issues and concerns raised by this assessment?

A13. The department has developed an action plan in response to the findings and recommendations of the National Assessment focusing on three key areas:

  • Improving technologies and partnerships to ensure the best use of investments in infrastructure;
  • Enhanced capacity building and operator training; and
  • Developing enforceable standards and protocols.

The action plan is an immediate response to the findings of the National Assessment and will expand further as the department analyzes the results and engages with First Nations and other stakeholders.

The data gathered during the National Assessment will also inform the department’s Capital Planning processes for water and wastewater systems where infrastructure has been identified as the reason behind a “high risk” rating.

Q14. When will the Government of Canada begin to address the First Nation water and wastewater infrastructure needs identified by the results of the National Assessment?

A14. The data and recommendations from the National Assessment will inform funding decisions for the 2012-2013 fiscal year as well as long-term financial plans. Almost 25 per cent of the water systems the National Assessment identifies as high design risk and high overall risk will be upgraded or replaced over the next three years. This includes improvements to 15 water systems in 2011-12.

Q15. How many new systems are needed?

A15. The department will be reviewing the reports and the recommendations they contain, including further analysis of opportunities for cost-effective, sustainable servicing solutions. This information will be an important resource as the department works with its partners and stakeholders to determine future directions. 

Q16. How much did the entire National Assessment cost?

A16. The National Assessment cost approximately $9.3 million.

Q17. How will the results of this National Assessment impact the Government of Canada’s current ongoing First Nation water initiatives?

A17. The results of the assessment will support work to ensure that First Nation communities have access to safe, clean drinking water. Between 2006 and 2013, the Government of Canada will have invested $2.5 billion in water and wastewater infrastructure in First Nations. These investments have been made through the department’s Capital Facilities and Maintenance Program, First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan (FNWWAP), and Canada's Economic Action Plan (CEAP)  .

This assessment is also an unprecedented reference tool that will inform future Government of Canada water initiatives while supporting future planning for water and wastewater systems in First Nations.

Q18. What is the status of Bill S-11, the Government of Canada’s proposed Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act?

A18. As a result of the dissolution of the 40th Parliament, Bill S-11, the proposed Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, died on Second Reading in the Senate.

Reports and Methodology

Q19. How are you supposed to read the community reports? Where in the reports can you find information on risk levels and possible upgrade costs for my community?

A19. The community reports contain a great deal of technical information describing the water and wastewater systems in the community. The Community Summary section provides an overview including information on the community’s water risk levels.

Information on projected upgrade costs can be found in the “Serviceability Analysis” section of each community report, as well as in the sections dedicated to each water and wastewater system in the community (under “Recommendations to comply with protocols and guidelines”).  

Q20. What methodology was used for the National Assessment? Is it different from what has been used previously?

A20. The National Assessment involved an independent, third party contractor collecting background data and information about each community, undertaking a site visit and preparing individual community reports for each participating First Nation. Draft reports were shared with the First Nation to enable each community to provide feedback on their report prior to its finalization. 

While the contractor used the department’s risk assessment processes, it applied the methodology with more rigour and consistency across the country than had been done previously.  

Q21. How can I obtain a copy of a particular community’s National Assessment report?

A21. Community reports will be made available upon request. Each community will be sent a copy of its own community report. 

Q22. Why does the data provided through the National Assessment differ from what the department has previously reported in its Water Progress Reports?

A22. The National Assessment is the most comprehensive and rigorous survey ever undertaken of First Nation water and wastewater systems.

While the contractor used the department’s risk assessment processes, it applied the methodology with more rigour and consistency across the country than had been done previously. The data is based on one site visit to each community and reflects the evidence seen by the professionals at that point in time. 

Q23. My community report includes a dollar figure to upgrade the system. When will my community get the money?

A23. The purpose of the National Assessment was to define current deficiencies and operational needs of water and wastewater systems, as well as to identify long-term water and wastewater needs for each community and to recommend sustainable, long-term infrastructure development strategies for the next 10 years.

The costs outlined in the National Assessment are estimates which were provided to support planning to meet both short-term and long-term water and wastewater needs of First Nations communities. However, the estimates will not replace the more detailed feasibility studies needed to assess and price specific projects.

As the National Assessment report notes, the 10-year growth estimates in the National Assessment 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 five years.

The department will work closely with First Nations to ensure that new projects identify the most cost-effective ways to appropriately meet a community’s health and safety needs. In many cases this may mean supporting First Nations in developing smaller systems, such as wells and cisterns.

The data and recommendations from the National Assessment will inform funding decisions for the 2012-2013 fiscal year as well as long-term financial plans. Almost 25 per cent of the water systems the National Assessment identifies as high design risk and high overall risk will be upgraded or replaced over the next three years. This includes improvements to 15 water systems in 2011-12.

Q24. My community report has errors in it, or I don’t agree with the data in the report. How can I get the report changed?

A24. The National Assessment was a very large study, and some errors or omissions are inevitable. Several steps have been taken to verify the data, and it is important to recognize that many aspects of a water system can change frequently. The community reports were shared with First Nations before they were finalized, and an opportunity was given to correct errors. The department will continue to conduct annual inspections of water and wastewater systems, and will rely on more recent information where it exists. More detailed financial planning will be conducted through the processes The department has developed with First Nations, including priority rankings and feasibility studies, prior to investing in major capital projects.