After seven years in the making a plan to protect Sault Ste. Marie’s drinking water was approved by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. The announcement came late last week from the Sault Ste. Marie Conservation Authority.
The Source Protection Plan (SPP) falls under the Clean Water Act which came about as a result of the Walkerton inquiry precipitated by seven deaths due to E. coli-contaminated water in the small agricultural community of Walkerton. Among his recommendations, Justice O’Connor advocated for a multi-barrier approach to address various levels of security of the drinking water system.
“Overall the purpose was to look at both quantity and quality of water supply and to evaluate threats to both,” commented Peter McLarty, SPP Committee Chair for Sault Ste. Marie.
The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) established a framework for the production of the SPP. Local partners to the SPP project are the Sault Ste. Marie Conservation Authority (SSMCA), the PUC, City of Sault Ste. Marie and Prince Township.
SSMCA general manager, Rhonda Bateman has been involved with the extensive development of the SPP for nearly a decade.
“The Conservation Authority has been in charge of gathering the science and running the program. Our first order of business was to put together the assessment report -that’s all the science information to create the policies that were developed in the Source Protection Plan,” explained Bateman. “That’s what took us the most amount of time. It took almost ten years for all of the science to be completed. We did have a draft assessment report approved in 2011 but we had further science to do and we had to add a chapter. It was about water quantity. The new version was approved in February of this year.”
Following the technical rules outlined by the MOECC, and as a result of the science gathered by the SSMRCA, 19 potential threats to Sault Ste. Marie’s drinking water were identified. Of that number only 4 were identified as significant threats.
Of the four threats McLarty explained, “They’re recognized and there is a plan to monitor regularly- so currently they’re a ‘managed threat’. The most notable threats are the transport, handling and storage of dangerous goods; transport and storage of fuels and by-products of fuels; and transportation and storage of sewage or other waste.”
Peter Tonazzo is a planner with the City of Sault Ste. Marie and the SPP Risk Management Official for the City.
“The Source Water Protection Plan is the first within a multi-layer approach intended to reduce the risk of contaminating our groundwater. So the Source is preemptive in nature,” remarked Tonazzo. “Much of it is about managing land uses and land use activities in an attempt to reduce the risk of contaminating the groundwater before it even gets into the drinking water system.”
Elaborating Tonazzo continued, “Basically the areas of concern include the lands that are within a one hundred meter radius around our four local well head locations- these are our City wells that draw drinking water for our City. The other area of concern is the intake protection zone- a fairly significant portion of our water comes from Lake Superior and what is called the surface water intake out at Gros Cap. Again in a preemptive nature the goal is to manage the land and activity uses in close proximity to these areas so that an existing use either won’t become a threat or that future uses aren’t put in these areas to become a threat.”
Of concern is a gas station located near one of the well heads. However the business owner recognized the concern and has been proactive about mitigating the threat. At this time the threat is considered to be a ‘managed threat’.
However, according to Tonazzo, the conditions of Sault Ste. Marie wells are quite positive. “I’m not sure if it was the foresight of our founding fathers or just good luck but the majority of our wells are in very good locations- they’re in residential areas. Residential developments and residential uses are not deemed to be a significant threat to our drinking water aquifers.”
An example of preventing potential threats is found with the Sault Ste. Marie landfill which sits on top of the city’s groundwater recharge area.
What is a groundwater recharge area you ask? Peter McLarty explains below.
“The City is built on an old river basin. Below the escarpment is a relatively flat land with multiple layers of soil –there’s at least three aquifers or underground bodies of water. The water that is in those aquifers has to come from somewhere. The groundwater percolates down from the top but because there are multiple clay layers it doesn’t percolate down very far. When it does percolate down it gets into the first aquifer and then works its way horizontally underground and then eventually discharges through artesian wells –in other words- rises back up to the surface water, or some of those layers empty in to the St. Marys River from the underground. The City’s groundwater recharge area for our drinking water wells runs from Hiawatha over to Allen Side Road.”
The landfill seems like an obvious threat however the SPP allows for measures that can mitigate future threats presented by the dump. The SPP does not allow for ‘new’ developments in vulnerable source areas that could be hazardous to the drinking water supply, such as ‘new’ landfills, ‘new’ gas stations or ‘new’ fertilizer storages. The SPP does allow for the expansion of the Sault Ste. Marie landfill. However, within this expansion are opportunities to mitigate potential threats and even improve the existing conditions of the Sault Ste. Marie landfill.
McLarty explained, “The plans for expansion of the landfill involves excavating parts of it and removing some of the harmful materials. A vinyl liner will be laid out on the bottom of the landfill and a clay layer will be added on top of that. That would actually improve the landfill.”
Outreach and Education is a component built into the SPP and McLarty is looking forward to opportunities to engage the community and various key entities.
“I think it’s important for our city to know that our water quality is good to excellent and we want to try to keep it that way. Public awareness is a major component to that. We’re going to be erecting signs along the highway in the recharge area. I think it is a very good thing for people to know where their drinking water is coming from.”
The Source Protection Plan is a legal document and an enforceable document. As mentioned, Tonazzo, in the role of Risk Management Official will work collaboratively with the Risk Management Inspector. Bateman is hoping that the inspector will be housed at the Conservation Authority on Fifth Line. The Conservation Authority’s ongoing role with the SPP involves regular reporting to the MOE, managing data and archiving and updating information as the SPP evolves.
Bateman noted that the SPP is not a static document. “The Conservation Authorities are keepers of the information. The plan is a living document and updates may come in a few years. Every city involved in this has unique factors to deal with. We are doing our best to work transparently with the City and to keep our source drinking water threat free before it enters the distribution system.”
Summarizing his final thoughts it’s pretty clear that Tonazzo applies a heavy weight to the responsibility of protecting the City’s drinking water.
“One thing that has always been in the back of my mind over the several years of this process- and we’ve certainly heard from folks that were involved with Walkerton, and not withstanding some of the issues that we’ve had with brown water, when we turn our tap water on we take it for granted that we’re going to be able to use that water. To sit and listen to someone talk about not being able to access water for a significant period of time is a real eye opener. We really take it for granted. We don’t necessarily think about what we’re doing in close proximity to well heads. I think the Clean Water Act, and unfortunately the incident in Walkerton, has really turned everybody’s attention to caring about those issues.”