Major study underway on Six Nations water quality

McMaster University working with Lubicon Cree and Six Nations, looking at water contamination.

SIX NATIONS — One in nine people on the planet do not have access to clean drinking water close to home — that’s 844 million people worldwide. This includes 31 per cent of schools world-wide that cannot offer clean drinking water to their staff or students.

It is estimated that there are more than 5 trillion plastic particles weighing 268,940 tons, floating in the Earth’s oceans. As currents and winds push the plastics around the world’s oceans, five massive mid-ocean gyres take the most concentration of plastic.

Based on how plastics break into smaller pieces, scientists expect there are even more micro-plastics beneath the surface than counted. The small pieces of micro-plastic, they suggest, can sink below the oceans surface more easily and be left on shorelines or be eaten by animals. Making micro-plastic pollution much worse than originally feared.

World Water Day is a single day in March dedicated to highlighting the importance of freshwater and to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.

But as Earth Day approaches, both days seem to celebrate common goals and give those interested in the preservation of natural resources strong platforms.

Closer to home, there are many indigenous nations still without clean drinking water. That prompted an ongoing water analysis with national experts right here at Six Nations.

Researchers with McMaster University partnered with Six Nations of the Grand River and Alberta’s Lubicon Cree First Nation to create the Indigenous Water Quality tools project.

The study looks at the drinking water in the two communities to try to find what is contaminating it.

As the community of Kashechewan of Northern Ontario made headlines in 2005 after poor water quality and unsanitary conditions forced the evacuation of 1000 residents; the larger problem of poor on-reserve water treatment infrastructure was brought to light in Canada.

More than 80 indigenous nations are currently under boil water advisories and 21 others are at high-risk for water contamination. Thus prompting Professor and Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill of Six Nations, to work extensively to bring the project from McMaster to the community. Martin-Hill draws water at home from a well that collects ground water.

Pat Chow-Fraser, a professor in McMaster’s Department of Biology, lead researcher and an expert in the health of aquatic ecosystems, explained that the project has been up and running for the past six months and focuses on working with the community.

“Because this is a co-creation project we really have to do whatever the community agrees to do. So our original proposal was built around the discussions with community members which are probably more through Dawns connections and that there was some concern about the wells — that the water was contaminated.”

Chow-Fraser has used her career to research the health of water and wildlife in the streams and coastal areas of the Great Lakes basin and continues to work with communities and environmental agencies alike to monitor, rejuvenate and protect the ecosystems they sustain.

One of Chow-Fraser’s self-identified “greatest accomplishments” came in the form of her using her work and testimony to put an injunction on a trailer park and its expansion which threatened a nearby wetland in the northern coast of Lake Superior.

She and her students collected water samples, identified wildlife and she later presented their findings to the Ontario Municipal Board, ultimately saving the threatened wetland. She now hopes to help test ground water and identify contaminations for Six Nations residents using wells.

“As we became more familiar with the community and practices and the cultural expectations we knew that we had to actually get people who wanted to have their well water tested and agree to do this rather than just doing any random sampling which is more of western approach to science and way to proceed,” she said.

Six Nations Elected Council offered information on where all of the wells in the community are and unfortunately only two individuals have signed up to be tested out of the 700 mapped wells in the community. This low number of signees is likely due to the project not being well-known, which prompted the project to host events within the community.

This included the event held on World Water Day last month at the Six Nations Community Hall. Piers Kreps, a student at MacMaster that served as a research assistant to the project, helped in organizing the event.

“It was really good to have a lot of the actual researchers down in the community for World Water Day because they brought a lot of their students that are working on their project as well, so they could interact with the community and actually set foot in the community,” said Kreps.

Kreps explained that the project has four research teams that are working together for the common goal of improving water quality. During the events the groups then offered Six Nations attendants the opportunity to listen in on their individual presentations and later offered four break out seminars.

Dr. P. Ravi Selvaganapathy, who served as the data synthesis investigator to the project, explained that being able to offer the data found on Six Nations by the researchers would benefit more than just those with wells and access to ground water.

“This is very useful information to have,” said Selvaganapathy. “In the environment you may want to measure parameters like conductivity and the dissolvents in water flowing through just to get a good idea about the health of the ecosystem that is thriving there.”

In other words, the information would also help in identifying problems in the surrounding ecosystems and wildlife. Selvaganapathy explained that the process of testing the water would be subjective to the community as well, as water can be tested periodically and only with permission — the information itself is paramount.

“Drinking water and the quality of the drinking water is very, very important and there are many parameters that affect it,” he said. “Things like for example pharmaceuticals in water, organic materials in water, or heavy metals in water are important but they affect the water over a longer duration of time. But something like bacteria is something that would affect the water in an immediate way, so that would lead to infection and then disease immediately.”

The researchers would be able to identify any of these factors in the tested ground water, and bring the data to the community — where local leaders can work toward finding solutions.

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