Feb 11

Watching our water

Saint John Airport has settled out of court with the City of Saint John after removing trees from City land and cutting into the protected Loch Lomond Watershed (one of two drinking water reservoirs for the City of Saint John). The offence took place in 2009, and the only reason I’m aware of it is because settlement documents showed up buried in the back of the supplement to the Saint John Common Council agenda packet from December 20, 2010 (link – large slow file, or excerpt 101220b excerpt SJ_Airport).

(Add another item to the list of stories the TJ chose not to report or simply missed. The City should also have made news of this incident more public, as water quality is front of mind for many Saint Johners.)

We’re all familiar now with the challenges of an aging water distribution system, but the issue of source water quality is something we need to think about too. This is also relevant to the discussions currently taking place throughout the province, and in this city, regarding wetlands protection and development.

The Airport/Watershed incident raises questions about what the City does – and what realistically it can do – to protect its source water. That’s especially important in areas where human activity and industrial lands crowd our reservoirs. To the west the Spruce Lake reservoir is relatively isolated from accidental damage – barring a major industrial or highway hazardous materials incident – but the Latimer Lake reservoir to the east is routinely vulnerable to the Airport (already proven to be a problem), a range of summer residences and recreational users on upstream waterways, and illegal backwoods dumping. (A watershed cleanup in November netted 23,000 kg of waste from the areas surrounding First Lake, Second Lake, Robertson Lake and Latimer Lake — see link.)

What rights does the City have to protect its water supplies, and what measures are available to enforce those rights? What role does the provincial Department of Environment play in these issues? What sanctions and protections are needed to prevent contamination of our water supplies, whether by the Airport, by other land owners adjacent to reservoirs, or by people who think it’s okay to dump refuse and contaminants beside the source of our drinking water?

And is the City even able to detect tampering? The Airport settlement refers to the incident happening ‘in or about 2009 and/or early 2010’. Not exactly precise. I’d be interested in knowing how long it took the City to notice the damage and how it became aware of the incident in the first place.

This was a near miss in that water quality was not immediately affected. But the risk of future problems has increased because of the damage to the watershed. The City – through this legal settlement – seems to have put the issue to bed, but hopefully not without a new awareness of the risks some of its ‘partners’ pose to the safety of Saint John’s drinking water. I also hope that the City is looking at ways to prevent this type of offence from being perpetrated again – whether by the Airport, other landowners or illegal dumpers.

For its part the Airport is paying the City $15,000 for ‘out of pocket expenses’ and making a $20,000 donation to environmental initiatives (the price I suppose of asking for forgiveness, not permission). That’s a real steal, especially since the Airport or its contractor walked off with ‘a significant amount of merchantable timber’. It doesn’t seem like much of an incentive to play it straight next time around.

Airport 1, City nil.