Day 5: Water on First Nations Reserves and Plastics in the Great Lakes 

Water Woes: Why Are Ontario’s First Nations Still Struggling with Boil Water Advisories? 

In Canada, provinces, not the federal government, are responsible for providing safe, clean drinking water to their citizens – except when it comes to First Nations. Independent governments in their own right, First Nations communities are left to work with whatever funding the Canadian government sets aside to try to oversee the construction, maintenance and training needed to run small, often rural water plants. The result is an epidemic of boil water advisories and unsafe drinking water conditions. A 2015 investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation found that two-thirds of First Nations in Canada had experienced at least one boil water advisory in the last decade. Some communities have been under such advisories for 20 years or more. Critics point out how swift the reaction was to the Walkerton e. coli outbreak in 2000 and wonder why similar measures haven’t been taken to fix the problem on indigenous lands. The Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, located less than 40 kilometers from Hamilton, is the most populous First Nation reserve in Canada, yet even it has endured years of water quality problems. Even though a new $41 million water plant recently went online, many residents still use wells that have become contaminated, mostly through agricultural runoff. The group toured the new water plant and met Six Nations officials and water policy experts to talk about how Canada is beginning to help empower First Nation communities to tackle this pernicious problem. 

The Great Lakes “Garbage Patch:” Do Plastics Pose A Future Risk to Our Water Supply?

In 2012, Sherri Mason set sail into Lake Erie to answer a question that had been nagging her for some time – if the world’s oceans collect “garbage patches” in their slow turning gyres, what does that mean for the Great Lakes? Nearly 20 percent of all the fresh, available surface water on Earth is in the five Great Lakes. It turns out that so is a ton of plastic pollution. Every piece of plastic ever made – from potato chip bags to bottle caps to fishing line – still exists somewhere on the planet. The substance can’t biodegrade, but it can break down into ever smaller parts. Mason’s first voyage found plastic everywhere. For example, she found an alarming amount of microbeads in the water, mostly residue from personal-care products and, only a few years after this discovery, a ban on microbeads was signed into law. But Mason was just getting started. Her recent research finds that microfibers from things like fleece jackets and yoga pants may be a bigger concern. They are literally everywhere – even integrating themselves into the gut lining of Great Lakes fishes, where they can potentially accumulate toxic chemicals and help move them up the food chain. The group met with Mason to hear about her recent work and why plastics may be the next big drinking water threat.