By Tim Kalinowski
The Parramatta Valley is a little far from the beaten track. It isn’t a community per se, but rather a collection of individuals who share a love of independence and a mutual respect for one another’s privacy. To most in the Parramatta Valley being away from the crowd is a virtue in and of itself. They want to be left alone to go about their lives as they see fit in their own way. That’s why the 13 households in this ad hoc community formed the Parramatta Water Co-op 40 years ago to reinforce that independence by providing their own potable water in their own water treatment plant. It is now the looming loss of that water treatment plant, due to Alberta Health regulations, which has sent shockwaves through the community.
Earlier this year, after ten years of ongoing battles to maintain the service in the face of ever tightening and more stringent regulations, the Co-op board made the decision to call it quits and stop providing potable water. That side of the treatment plant will be closing in October.
Ron Holmes, who is board member with the cooperative, says he is sad it has come to this.
“We can no longer keep up with the changing regulations. It’s going to be too expensive for us to operate it to meet all the health and environmental regulations. We are looking ahead a year or two and it looks bleak as far as our ability to do that. So we are looking for alternatives for water supply,” says Holmes.
The main problem is Alberta Health has been insisting the cooperative hire a full time water treatment plant operator and pay for a full engineering study on their facility, something which local residents simply can’t afford.
Cooperative members are quick to point out there has never been a drinking water related illness in the treatment plant’s history. There is also a resentment among the 13 member households that even though the community built a brand new treatment plant ten years ago in order to comply with Alberta Health’s demands back then, there always seems to be an ever moving target laid out by the ministry which the cooperative just can’t reach.
John Halladay has lived in the Paramatta Valley for the past 38 years and is the secretary treasurer of the Parramatta Water Co-op. He is as frustrated as everyone else with the situation.
“With this treatment plant problem, it’s not just a shadow cast over the great life we have here; it’s more like a bombshell hitting it,” says Halladay. “As a small co-op supplying water safely for 13 houses over 40 years it’s hard to take this foolishness with these regulations. It’s hard to see a change.”
Halladay points to the fact local residents have been under a provincial government boil water advisory since 2005 despite numerous lab tests over the years which show their water is safe to drink.
“We have never had a sample come back that says it’s unsafe to drink. That advisory just allows Alberta Health to come back and say, just in case, I know you guys got sick down there but you are supposed to be boiling your water. It’s not our fault. So it’s more about liability than safety,” says Halladay.
Ron Holmes says any choice locals make now is going to have a downside, and some are going to have a huge price tag attached which are just beyond reach.
“The alternative is to haul water like we are doing. Another alternative is to look at hooking on to the line that runs from Seven Persons to Medicine Hat. One of our fellows has looked at talking to Redcliff to do some directional drilling beneath the river and hooking up to buy water from the Redcliff treatment plant. Personally I wanted access to our irrigation water like a lot of guys along the SMRID do and treat it in my basement. The jury is still out regulation-wise on that.”
And drinking water isn’t the only problem facing Paramatta Valley residents. Under Alberta Health regulations locals must also have access to potable water to flush their toilets, run their showers and do their laundry. The Parramatta Water Co-op has discussed the possibility with the ministry of filling the treatment plant tanks from their irrigated water and treating it as standing water without ongoing river intake. Holmes feels the same rules which allow farmers to do something similar with their dugouts should apply in this case. So far Alberta Health has said no. Well not “no” exactly, but rather to do so the cooperative could not use their existing water pipelines to the households. Residents would have to draw water from the standing tanks using pails.
The whole situation is something which water treatment plant volunteer monitor, and long time Parramatta Valley resident, Sandy Harper finds absolutely outrageous.
“It’s a disgrace,” states Harper bluntly. “We are now totally responsible for supplying our own water without any government assistance. In a First World country it reduces us to Third World status.”
Patricia Harper’s Glasgow temper flares even hotter than her husband’s when she thinks about it.
“I feel like I have been shafted by the government,” says Harper. “It is ludicrous to have this perpetual, glorious stream of water in the pump house and have people on this street, who can ill afford it, having to put cisterns in and having their water delivered.”
Patricia says she knows what she would like to see happen.
“I would like to see our local government take over the running of the pumphouse, bring it up to date, do all the over-the-top regulations that we’ve had since Walkerton (the drinking water tragedy in Ontario) happened. And let them supply Canadian citizens with water. The next step is to get Cypress County involved in this, but I have no hopes that will happen and they will do anything.”
Ron Holmes, on the other hand, is not so sure county involvement is the answer. Being a communion of individuals who share a love of independence and solitude, Holmes says he would like to see if a home-made solution to local water issues is possible before turning to others for help.
“We are continuing to look for alternate, more convenient sources than hauling water,” confirms Holmes. “I think it’s a waste of a road which is going to get pounded down pretty bad. And, as we saw with the tanker truck accident (on Aug. 25) it’s a steep road and I am concerned about the winter time. They may refuse to haul here. And if they refuse to come down that hill then we are in big trouble.”