UBC researchers looking for solution to White Rock's water problem

White Rock has a water problem and a UBC-based research team is finding the solution. 

White Rock, a city with a population of 20,000, has found elevated amounts of arsenic and manganese in its water. The White Rock city council granted $100,000 to RES’EAU WaterNET, a research team based at the UBC, to determine the most effective method for cleaning the water. 

WaterNET knows a thing or two about testing and improving treatment systems of water. Funded mostly by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research of Canada (NSERC), it is a national research program primarily focused on establishing reliable and cost-effective water systems for small, rural and First Nations communities. 

The program has had success in many small and First Nation communities in BC by testing their water, evaluating different solutions and technologies, and working with government partners to install treatment systems in the community. They worked with reserves within the Lytton First Nation and installed a water treatment system last year. Since then, the water boil advisory has been lifted and residents can safely drink their tap water. 

WaterNET believes in employing a “community circle” approach by having all entities — from government officials, contractors, health authorities and especially residents — involved in finding the solution. 

What is the water situation in White Rock? What are the researchers at RES’EAU dealing with?

White Rock uses a private water system of seven wells fueled by the Sunnyside Uplands Aquifer, making it the only Metro Vancouver municipality with its own water system. Monthly sampling reports of the wells from 2016 showed elevated levels of arsenic and manganese in two of the wells in particular. 

Let’s start with manganese. 

Manganese is an essential element for humans, and current science shows no negative health effects with a daily intake of 0–1 mg in drinking water. The manganese level isn’t a health risk. The problem is that the water isn’t pretty. 

“There is an aesthetic problem. Even if you go to the public and tell them that it is safe, they still don’t want it,” said Madjid Mohseni, an engineering professor at UBC and the science director at RES’EAU-WaterNET. The manganese concentrations in several White Rock wells is high enough that manganese may form coatings on water pipes and appear as black grains in drinking water. 

Then there is arsenic. 

According to Health Canada, consuming high levels of arsenic over a lifetime can increase the risk of cancer in internal organs. Health Canada has set the guideline for arsenic at 0.01 mg/L. It is important to note that the guideline was established with a lifetime exposure of arsenic in mind.

Over the past year, the arsenic concentration of several wells was found to be near or above 0.01 mg/L. 

“Both of these [elements], from a health point of view, are within an acceptable range. If you consume that water today or for a year — based on the information that is out there — you won’t see any negative effects,” said Mohseni . 

By working with WaterNET, the city is already taking measures to clean-up the water. According to Mohseni, the water is relatively straightforward to treat and the treatment system will probably take approximately a year to set up after the city has approved the method. 

Groups of citizens in White Rock think that there is a better solution — switching to the Metro Vancouver system.  

White Rock has seen rising tensions between residents and the municipal government over the quality of its water and how they should improve it. The root of the debate revolves around whether White Rock should make improvements to its current system or switch to the central Metro Vancouver system.

The city of White Rock says that the switch to the Metro Vancouver system would cost $27 million and an annual water cost of $1.5 million. The anticipated cost of improving their own water system by building treatment facilities and a new reservoir is $14 million. 

“If the residents want to do this, the question becomes ‘Are they willing to pay?’” said Mohseni. 

WaterNET’s involvement in White Rock is purely scientific. Their goal is to find the best method to treat the water and present their suggestions to the city council. The final decision on how to treat their water is made by the city council. 

Mohseni and WaterNET hope to continue to use a “community circle” approach — even in a city as large as White Rock — by holding town hall meetings to ensure that residents have opportunities to learn about the research and to voice their concerns. 

“What we do in our work is ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, particularly the community members,” said Mohseni. 

RES’EAU-WateNET’s research is expected to start by the end of the year and continue into the spring of next year.