The Interior Health Authority is currently charting a surge in the incidence of vomiting and diarrhea-type illness in the Central Okanagan, as reported by family doctors.
Dr. Paul Hasselback, senior medical health officer for IHA, told members of the Okanagan Basin Water Board there’s usually an association between turbidity in water supplies and such subsequent enteric disease rates.
While pointing to the graph illustrating the higher-than-normal incidence of such illnesses here in the past couple of months, Hasselback said they are not seeing it in other systems.
However, he said B.C. has the highest rates of enteric disease in the country, with significant outbreaks at different times in the past few years.
Pathogens are the greatest risk to human health in drinking water supplies, he said, and drinking water is the concern of IH, not water used for recreation, irrigation, processing or habitat for fish or wildlife.
The Okanagan has a predominance of drinking water quality advisories, and they tend to be longer-lived, he said, weeks in length rather than days.
“We’re behind. It’s time to catch up,” he warned the representatives of regional districts from around the valley.
Decisions were made in the 1960s based on an assumption that our mountain water supplies were pristine, resulting in a large number of small suppliers, instead of one large water system.
Those decisions have now come back to haunt us, Hasselback contended.
Today, he said 20 of 30 large systems within the IHA region lack dual protection; filtration will be required for most surface water systems; and even groundwater-based systems will need disinfection in distribution. More than just chlorination will be required, and there’s no cheap way to improve water treatment..
Hasselback also pointed out that Canada has the lowest municipal water prices in the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.
He attended the meeting at the request of OBWB members to discuss the rationale behind the drinking water advisories IHA has insisted be broadcast when turbidity increases on water systems.
Director Toby Pike, who represents water purveyors on the OBWB, commented it would be a financial challenge for taxpayers to comply with the regulations. Monthly water rates could go as high as $600 in some districts in order to construct the treatment facilities required.
He asked what the IHA policy is regarding activities in watersheds. Hasselback responded that the IHA is committed to source protection, but he said there’s no substitute for treatment.
Water board director and Peachland Mayor Graham Reid noted that small municipality has approved a $55-million master water plan for the next 20 years, which will require taxpayers’ water rates to triple over that time period to pay for it.
And the Westbank Irrigation District just completed construction of an $18-million treatment plant.
Director Robert Hobson, chairman of the Central Okanagan Regional District, pointed out that it doesn’t make sense to filter industrial water.
He suggested perhaps it’s time to separate domestic drinking water and just filter that. He urged a valley-wide approach to the issue.
Director Tom Siddon told Hasselback reservoirs need to be protected from vacation cottages and cattle. “We need IHA to become an advocate for us,” he said.