“Clean water, broken promises” is a collaborative investigation into obstacles First Nations are encountering during the Trudeau government’s push to ensure communities are able to deliver clean drinking water to residents. You can find the full series here.
Located on Lake Huron’s Manitoulin Island, Zhiibaahaasing First Nation is a small community in Ontario with just 182 registered members, 65 of whom live on reserve. Roughly two dozen buildings line its main road and three side streets, with powwow grounds at the centre.
A kilometre to the north, the nation’s water treatment plant, built in 2013, sits at the lake’s edge. Last June, roughly seven years after its construction, flooding forced the plant to shut down and the First Nation to declare a state of emergency.
Climate change is leading to more variability in water levels on the Great Lakes. Lakes Michigan and Huron, connected by the Straits of Mackinac, reached a record low water level in January 2013. By the spring of 2020, the trend had reversed — the combined water level sat at an all-time high.
“The plant’s right by the shoreline, and it flooded ... It came to be a crisis because the foundation moved,” said Grand Council Chief Glen Hare of Anishinabek Nation, a political organization that represents 39 First Nations in Ontario, including Zhiibaahaasing.
A year-long investigation by a consortium of universities, colleges and media outlets, including Carleton University, Canada’s National Observer and Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, shows Zhiibaahaasing is not the only First Nation dealing with the impacts of flooding and other climate-related risks on infrastructure.
Across Canada, more than $1.74 billion has been spent on on-reserve water and wastewater projects since 2015, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said in an emailed response. However, design guidelines for these systems do not require that climate change be taken into account during their planning and construction.
In early 2020, journalism students did 122 standardized interviews with water operators and public works directors in First Nations communities across Canada. Nearly a quarter of those interviewees said they were concerned climate change is already affecting their drinking water.
Some operators in the B.C. Interior and the Prairies — regions at risk of dealing with more frequent droughts in the future — said they were worried about having enough water to meet their communities’ needs. Elsewhere, operators expressed concerns about extreme weather, changing water quality and other climate-related hazards.
Unamen Shipu, an Innu First Nation of 1,200 people, sits on the northern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec. Climate change has accelerated coastal erosion in the community and across the region by raising sea levels, increasing the number of freeze-thaw cycles that the soil goes through and reducing ice cover in winter, which leaves the shore more exposed to storms.
The federal government has spent more than $1.7 billion on water and wastewater projects in First Nations since 2015. But design guidelines for these projects don't require planners to take climate change into account. #BrokenPromises #FIRSTWATER
In 2009, a new water treatment plant was completed in the community with $8.7 million in federal funding. It was placed next to the main road through the community, just opposite the shoreline.
Since then, coastal erosion has threatened that road, as well as water mains, sewers and a pipe connecting the new plant to the community’s old one, which now acts as a pumping station for raw water.
“Every year, a foot or two (of land) would go,” said band manager Normand Bellefleur. “At some point, the road was going to fall away, and then there wouldn’t have been much left to stop our (water treatment) plant from falling away as well.”
Last summer, the First Nation received funding from ISC to place riprap — rocky material used to reinforce shorelines — along 300 metres of the coast. The plant is safe for the time being.
Several experts told the consortium that engineers should be anticipating the impacts climate change will have on infrastructure assets over their lifespans and incorporating ways of mitigating climate change-related risks into their designs.
However, in the absence of requirements, this isn’t always done, said Kerry Black, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering whose research has focused on sustainable infrastructure in northern and remote communities.
“If (First Nations) are incorporating climate change concerns into their water and wastewater design process, it is an ad hoc process, something a consultant may suggest or a First Nation may say, ‘This is important to us. We want you to consider it in your design.’ But it’s not something that is required within funding programs. It’s not something that is prioritized,” she said.
ISC’s design guidelines require engineers to take the risks of floods and droughts into account, but don’t ask them to consider how climate change will magnify these risks over an infrastructure asset’s lifespan.
The problem with such an approach is that “the climate is changing, which ultimately changes the (relevant) benchmark,” said hydrologist Andrew Gronewold, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. There will be more climate variability, and major floods, droughts, wildfires and extreme weather events will recur more frequently than in the past, said Gronewold.
ISC said in an emailed statement that all projects must undergo an environmental review process or an environmental assessment. But the focus of these environmental reviews is on how projects will impact the environment, notably soil, groundwater, air quality, fish habitats and migratory birds — not on how infrastructure assets can be made more resilient to climate change.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said his department has not required that climate change be considered in project designs because it wants to respect First Nations’ choices on how to plan and build their infrastructure. “More often than not, Indigenous leadership has shown itself to be exemplary when it comes to respect for the environment and has been at the forefront of these issues,” he said.
Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for the northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay, said some of the federal government’s talk of empowering First Nations to make their own decisions is just “old-fashioned downloading” of responsibilities. He said incorporating climate-risk mitigation strategies into designs will raise infrastructure project costs, and the federal government doesn’t want to spend the money.
He said ISC should change its policies to ensure climate change impacts are factored into designs, “but (the government has) to be willing to augment the budget to do it, and do it right, so that 20 years from now ... that infrastructure is not failing.”
Municipalities required to include climate resilience in designs
While ISC’s design guidelines for water infrastructure on First Nations do not require that engineers consider and mitigate climate change-related risks, another federal department has started to require that of municipal and provincial infrastructure projects.
Infrastructure Canada introduced new rules in 2018 in order to ensure climate change impacts are considered in the design of infrastructure funded through several of its programs, including its 12-year, $180-billion Investing in Canada Plan. Municipalities and provinces seeking federal funding for projects ranging from public transit corridors to government-owned convention centres must complete two climate change-related assessments early in the planning process.
“(Project applicants) will need to consider ways to incorporate structural or system changes that will help their new infrastructure withstand the potential impacts of climate change and continue to perform reliably,” reads an Infrastructure Canada webpage on what the department calls its “climate lens.”
The requirement applies to projects that cost more than $10 million, as well as smaller projects that are specifically meant to address climate change and its impacts.
“Our government brought in a ‘climate lens’ ... to encourage infrastructure owners to design projects that produce lower emissions and are better able to withstand extreme weather and other effects of climate change,” Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna said in a statement to the consortium. “This is critically important as we need to ensure that infrastructure is built to withstand the impacts of a changing climate ... and we have the opportunity to build in a way that reduces emissions.”
The requirement applies to projects in First Nations communities that seek funding from Infrastructure Canada’s Investing in Canada program or its Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. But most funding for First Nations infrastructure passes through ISC instead.
“Projects funded by other departments, including Indigenous Services Canada, must meet (those departments’) requirements for incorporating climate considerations,” said Infrastructure Canada spokesperson Lama Khodr.
The Indigenous services minister was asked if his department should introduce a similar policy. He said he’d be “glad to look at any proposal that is environmentally conscious,” but added that his department wouldn’t want to be prescriptive.
“The infrastructure work ... that we (in the federal government) do with provincial and municipal governments is fundamentally different than the work that we aspire to do with Indigenous communities,” he said, adding he’s “very conscious of the relationship aspects of some of the work” his department does.
On-reserve water and wastewater projects also vary in cost. If Infrastructure Canada’s requirements were adopted by ISC with the same $10-million threshold, many projects would be exempted from having to consider climate change in their designs.
The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte received $27.6 million in federal funding for the construction of a new water treatment plant and some water mains in 2016, which they supplemented with $3.3 million of their own funds. ISC invested $4.7 million in a water treatment plant that opened last year in Kejick Bay, one of Lac Seul First Nation’s communities in western Ontario. In the last 10 years, many projects were just under the threshold.
Infrastructure Canada spokesperson Khodr said the $10-million threshold was included to “ensure that major infrastructure projects consider mitigation and adaptation impacts without placing undue administrative burden on smaller projects.”
Several engineers and climate researchers consulted by the consortium said the “climate lens” should apply to smaller projects, too, at least in some way, even if those projects have fewer resources to expend on such reporting requirements. “I think it should be a requirement at a much lower threshold, ... even at $1 million,” said U of C’s Black.
“Any responsible design engineer, regardless of their funding source, should be taking long-term changes in the environmental system into consideration, period, regardless of the scale of the project,” said Gronewold.
In her statement, McKenna said she strongly believes that “every infrastructure project, regardless of size, should incorporate a climate lens,” but also recognized that smaller projects may be proposed by communities “who may not have capacity.”
“We provide them with necessary support and have a streamlined process, which is not overly bureaucratic while getting clear outcomes,” she said.
Dealing with the consequences of ignoring climate-related hazards
When Zhiibaahaasing’s water plant was built, the Great Lakes had been experiencing a period of low water levels. The level of lakes Michigan and Huron had been below average for 14 straight years, the longest stretch since records began in 1918, according to a report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The swing less than a decade later to record highs “represents one of the most rapid transitions from extreme lows to extreme highs ever in recorded history on the Great Lakes,” said the University of Michigan’s Gronewold, adding the best explanation is “a changing climate.”
The Great Lakes’ water levels are affected by precipitation patterns and evaporation rates, which “are very sensitive to changes in temperature and also to changes in the way air patterns move across the continent,” Gronewold said.
Zhiibaahaasing First Nation’s chief, Irene Sagon Kells, declined to comment on the flooding at her community’s water treatment plant, but a professional in the water treatment field familiar with the plant — who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter — said there appears to have been “no consideration (in its design) for climate change and rising water levels that could impact it.”
Grand Council Chief Hare said Zhiibaahaasing’s water treatment plant shouldn’t have been placed where it was. “The site is wrong. You don’t want to put a plant on the shore. I think that’s where the fault was. It’s right on the shore,” he said.
Black said the water plant might have been placed at the lake’s edge as a cost-saving measure. “Typically, it’s funding-related, it’s money-related. So was there an additional cost to pumping the water up a further height, increasing (the length of) pipe, (making) changes in pumps? Yes, probably,” she said.
In response to a question about whether the plant’s site was chosen to save costs, ISC spokesperson William Olscamp said the plant “was built as an addition to the existing water intake and lift station ... in order to use the infrastructure already in place, and thus it was not a new site.”
“We are not aware of the original rationale for the placement of (that infrastructure),” the statement read.
Experts could not say definitively whether a requirement to take climate change-related risks into account would have prevented the plant from being built in a location vulnerable to flooding.
In a research paper about Infrastructure Canada’s “climate lens,” four engineering, environmental science and planning consultants wrote that “a risk-management approach applied at the planning and design phase may result in the requirement to re-site major infrastructure” by showing that climate change is increasing flood risks.
But Gronewold said it is difficult to predict how climate change will impact water levels because of the wide array of factors that impact precipitation patterns. “There probably isn’t great design guidance right now that takes into consideration ... the impacts of climate change on the hydrologic cycle,” he said, adding researchers are working to develop better models that engineers and designers could use.
Zhiibaahaasing’s water treatment plant was threatened even before water levels reached record highs last spring. After Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald toured the First Nation’s water plant in August 2019, she posted on Facebook that a “barrier” was being built around the facility with federal funds, but that it was “already being inundated” because Lake Huron’s water level was “actually higher than the water plant and the temporary barrier.”
ISC confirmed in a statement that it provided $178,000 for the placement of riprap around the site as a form of protective barrier against waves.
After the plant shut down in June 2020, ISC worked with Zhiibaahaasing to “arrange for emergency water transportation from nearby M'Chigeeng First Nation,” the department said in a statement.
A portable water treatment plant, like the kind that the Canadian military uses in overseas troop deployments, was delivered to Zhiibaahaasing in September.
Olscamp wrote in an email that the portable plant “was placed on a concrete pad located well above the Lake Huron high-water mark.”
The plant was supposed to be operational in November, but leaks were discovered in the system. “I don't think the portable system is the answer, for the large amount of money (they’ve) put into it,” Grand Council Chief Hare said.
The system has been “fully operational” since December, according to ISC.
“Zhiibaahaasing is leading this project and ISC is working closely with them to meet the community’s drinking water needs,” Olscamp wrote.
— With files from Brittany Hobson (APTN News), Krista Hessey (Global News) and Alexis Riopel (Le Devoir)
Institute for Investigative Journalism:
Lila Maître (fellow)
Université du Québec à Montréal:
Philippe Julien-Bougie, Genevieve Larochelle-Guy, Bruno Marcotte, Lila Maître, Étienne Robidoux (Instructors: Patti Sonntag and Jean-Hugues Roy)
Erica Endemann, Jordan Haworth, Katie Jacobs, Dexter McMillan (Professor: Christopher Waddell)
Produced by the Institute for Investigative Journalism, Concordia University
For tips on this story, please contact the reporters at: iij.tips(at)protonmail.com
See the full list of “Broken Promises” series credits here.