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A Systematic Approach to Domestic Groundwater Resource Management for Indigenous Communities

It is estimated that 8.9 million Canadians, approximately 30% of the population, rely on groundwater for domestic (household) use. In Canada, the responsibility for ensuring safe drinking water supplies is shared between provincial, territorial, federal and municipal governments. The day-to-day responsibility generally rests with the provinces and territories, while municipalities usually oversee operations of treatment facilities. The federal government is responsible for providing safe drinking water to First Nations reserves, federal institutions and on federal land.

The allocation of groundwater resources is provincially or territorially regulated with different levels of regulation for different usage. Domestic household users typically use less groundwater than their allocated annual diversion and domestic users are allowed to use groundwater without requirement of specialized licensing. Agricultural, industrial, municipal and commercial groundwater uses are required to obtain a licence to use groundwater resources. In general, these larger volume groundwater users are required to have a professional scientist or engineer perform specialized testing to ensure that the proposed groundwater withdrawal will not negatively impact adjacent household groundwater users. A list of each provincial and territorial regulatory body in Western Canada, and the associated regulation or Act, is provided at the end of this article.

While Canadians that live in communities serviced by public water utilities rely on their local municipal services to supply and protect their drinking water, domestic water well users carry the financial burden and personal responsibility for drilling and maintaining their own water wells and the associated household piping and water distribution system. Water wells and the associated equipment is costly, and routine maintenance is necessary to protect their investment and to ensure the groundwater is safe to consume. Routine water system maintenance typically includes adequate well head protection, scheduled shock chlorination, water quality testing, and upkeep treatment systems or installation of treatment systems if necessary.

In 2016, the federal government budget pledged $1.8 billion dollars to eradicate drinking water advisories (DWAs) on Indigenous lands, which was followed by funding pledges of $4 billion in 2017 to improve First Nations and Inuit communities’ infrastructure. According to the most recent data on the Indigenous Services Canada website (February 2020), there are currently 61 long-term DWAs on public systems located on reserves, and the goal is to reduce this number to zero by March 2021. Federal dollars targeting DWAs often involve building or upgrading a centralized water treatment plant to manage water-borne pathogens, rather than preventing the pathogens from entering the water system in the first place. This approach treats the symptom and not the cause. The federal funding model also struggles with managing DWAs at Indigenous communities relying on individual water wells that have limited/no water treatment.


Many Indigenous communities face significant challenges in securing safe drinking water. The reasons for this are complex and beyond the ability to fully detail herein. This article attempts to provide a recommended approach to protecting domestic use water wells in Indigenous communities, and is a building block toward a comprehensive water management, protection, and security plan. The approach is broken down into the following steps:

1. Identify and catalogue domestic water wells within the community;

2. Rank water wells based on risk from environmental or engineered controls;

3. Perform a maintenance and water quality testing program for domestic wells in order of risk;

4. Implement a community-based water well management program;

5. Initiate a regional aquifer characterization program for long-term sustainability management; and

6. Work with Indigenous people, elders and leaders to incorporate traditional knowledge, and to facilitate knowledge sharing and transfer in both directions to build a technical support network within the Indigenous community.

These steps are expanded upon in the following sections and are by no means considered comprehensive. They are provided here as a general approach to support community elders and leaders with a potential method for long-term domestic water well protection. It is also noted that this approach to does not just apply specifically to Indigenous communities, but to all domestic water well users regardless of location or the overarching regulatory framework.


Many Indigenous communities in Canada maintain robust databases and records for each individual residence and in most cases, a record of water well users within the community already exists. A practical first step would be to cross-reference the existing residential data with publicly available water well records and develop a catalogue of the location and construction details of each water well within the community.

Each province and territory maintain its own requirements for licencing water well drillers and managing its water well records. In Alberta for example, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) maintains the Groundwater Information System, a publicly accessible database where all licenced water well drillers are required to submit a drilling report that can be accessed online

[Alberta Water Well Information Database]. Although the database is imperfect due to the inherent challenges of managing millions of water well records, most water wells are listed and key information about an individual water well can be extracted. This information includes the well location, the date the well was drilled, the name of the drilling contractor, the well construction details, the soil and bedrock conditions encountered, and the expected well yield, among other pertinent information.

While access to individual water well record data varies by province, cross-referencing these data with the community database is practical for identifying and cataloging active domestic use water wells within an Indigenous community. Population of this the community water well catalogue will therefore depend on both local knowledge from the community and regional groundwater experts familiar with accessing and culling provincial databases.

Cross-referencing the provincial water well database with domestic water well users.


Once each of the domestic water wells have been identified in a community, a field-based program is necessary to determine the level of risk to those consuming water from the well. A relative risk ranking program may include evaluation of the well location relative to anthropogenic and environmental factors (materials storage, ground slope, proximity to ponds, septic fields, etc.) and determination of well completion adequacy such as the casing surface seal, sanitary cover and wellhead protection (engineered controls).

A cursory risk analysis may be as simple as taking a photograph of the well and providing adequate steps to reduce exposure to the environment, or may be as robust as a complete site assessment and interview/survey with the water well user to glean a qualitative assessment of the water quality and well history. After each of the wells in the community have been ranked for relative risk of consumption, a systematic water well sampling/testing and wellhead protection program should be initiated.


Water well sampling, testing, and well head protection evaluation, should be performed on each of the domestic use water wells in the community with efforts focused on the relative risk ranking assessment. Water quality testing should include evaluation of a variety of water quality parameters listed under the Heath Canada Guide to Drinking Water Quality. This analytical suite exceeds the free sampling evaluation provided by local health authorities, which are typically limited to microbiological or bacterial analysis. While the presence of bacteria in the water generally point to inadequate well completion or wellhead protection (i.e. surface water infiltration into the well), evaluation of dissolved parameters in the well water is also an important step in assessing the complete water quality of the aquifer. The presence of elevated constituents such as arsenic, lead or sulphate in water, for example, may be a natural occurrence in groundwater, but can have impacts to human health when consumed long-term. By establishing a baseline of water quality in aquifers that support a community, adequate steps toward treatment of the water, where necessary, can be taken, and any changes to the water quality can be rapidly assessed. Similarly, by taking proactive steps to safeguard the water well from environmental or anthropogenic sources, the risk to consumption of contaminated water can be reduced.

An example of a water well with adequate protection vs a water well that has been compromised an exposed to environmental impacts is shown in the pictures below. Water wells that are exposed to surface water infiltration pose a significant health risk to those drinking the water.

A water well capped and protected from environmental impacts such that water does not pool around the casing and snow and surface runoff are directed away from the well.

A water well located in a low-lying area with ill fitting cap. Surface water infiltration into a water well can lead to introduction of pathogens from surface.


Routine maintenance of a household water well is necessary for ensuring optimal operating efficiency, and disinfection of bacteria that can accumulate naturally over time. Iron related bacteria (IRB) and sulphate reducing bacteria (SRB), for example, will accumulate naturally in a water well and throughout the distribution system. These bacteria are not harmful from a health-based perspective, but can result in the buildup of material (slime) and impact the efficiency of a water well and its distribution system. Shock-chlorination of a water well, and the household piping and plumbing fixtures, using chlorine or other disinfectants are typically adequate for reducing IRB and SRB populations and should therefore be completed on an annual or semi-annual schedule. The procedure for shock chlorination of a water well is relatively straight-forward and in its simplest form, involves mixing chlorine bleach with water and flowing the chlorinated water through the water well and distribution system.

In addition to annual shock chlorination, an annual inspection of the water well, its pump, the electrical system and the distribution system, including the pressure tank, hot water tank and piping, should be performed. On the community scale, this can be completed over a multi-day program which involves input and support from the residents. Following annual inspection and shock-chlorination, a water sample should be collected to verify the water quality.

There are numerous documents detailing the procedure for water well shock-chlorination and well distribution system maintenance. Water Wells that Last is one such document published by the Alberta Government and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. It is an excellent reference document which contains detailed steps on planning, designing and maintaining and protecting domestic use water wells.

On the community scale, a robust annual water well maintenance program should be implemented to ensure adequate water supply protection and drinking water quality. A typical annual program should include:

· Inspection of the wellhead and surface seal;

· Inspection of the distribution system and pressure tank;

· Qualitative assessment of the water quality and pump performance from the residents;

· Shock chlorination of the water wells;

· Water quality sampling at the point of consumption; and

· Ongoing knowledge transfer with the residents on well protection methodologies.

The above information should be stored in a centralized database to allow for tracking of water wells for regular scheduled maintenance, as well as ensuring follow up based on the field assessment of the water chemistry results. All water chemistry should also be stored and a database of water quality from the community aquifers should be maintained. This not only provides information on historical water quality, but also establishes a baseline should any changes to the aquifer occur due to anthropogenic sources.

Optimization of the database may include reliance on a third-party software system, but management of the data and tracking of the results should ultimately be the responsibility of the community.

Development of a robust water well management database is an essential step in managing well maintenance issues.


While establishing a database of well integrity and water quality is practical from a management perspective, it is also fundamental for characterizing community-based aquifers for long-term sustainability. Regional aquifers that supply groundwater to a community are not limited by municipal, provincial or federal borders and typically extend over tens to hundreds of kilometers. One reason groundwater is so prolific in the western provinces is because the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, a vast expanse of sedimentary rock (and groundwater-bearing formations) extends from Northeastern British Columbia to southwestern Manitoba. As more people and businesses continue to expand groundwater use, the aquifers, if not managed correctly, can become strained – potentially impacting groundwater deliverability for some groundwater users. As such, monitoring groundwater levels and production rates is necessary to ensure the aquifer is adequately managed. By establishing a regional groundwater monitoring program, a cumulative effects analysis can be performed, which allows the community to take a leading role in safeguarding of the resource.

Hydrogeological cross-section of community domestic water wells for regional aquifer mapping.

Mapping aquifers and monitoring wells for regional groundwater sustainability management.

Monitoring regional groundwater levels in aquifers for sustainability management.


Practical experience from completing thousands of water well inspections and tests has shown that most well owners do not complete routine maintenance (e.g., shock chlorination) on their wells. Moreover, most well owners understand little about water wells, the aquifers that provide groundwater to their wells, and the importance of a wellhead protection strategy to safeguard their water supplies for current, and future generations. Although it is appreciated that most people complete routine maintenance on some key assets (e.g., changing oil on their vehicles or cleaning their furnace), the concept of routine maintenance of their wells is not typically incorporated. For these reasons, ongoing education, particularly for youth, is required to ensure that water wells remain protected and perform optimally.

In 2006, Alberta Environment initiated a water well education program to help well owners understand more about groundwater and the importance of proper well maintenance. The product of the initiative was a multi-agency led series of community engagement workshops entitled “Working Well[1]” with the goals of sharing awareness and knowledge and development of skills to help owners practice positive change. The Working Well project was aligned with other strategies and policies related to water and health such as:

· Canadian Agricultural Partnership in Alberta (formerly Growing Forward)

As previously mentioned, in the 1990's, the Government of Alberta, in association with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, released a thorough workbook entitled Water Wells that Last which included everything from modules on understanding groundwater, to planning a water system, water well drilling and ongoing well maintenance. While this 80+ page document is exceptional in its methodology and principles for water well protection, there are also inherent benefits to hands on training of domestic water well maintenance and sampling procedures. Moreover, management of annual water well sampling and maintenance on the community scale requires buy-in and support from key community members to ensure their water resources are adequately protected. Community-based/traditional knowledge transfer is a fundamental responsibility of scientists, and management of water resources is a key component to community sustainability. This intersection of scientific expertise and community-based aquifer management, particularly on Indigenous settlements where traditional knowledge must be accounted for, is an important step in establishing long-term groundwater resource management. As such, capacity building within the Indigenous communities must include increased knowledge of water wells and effective wellhead protection strategies to ensure safe and reliable drinking water supplies last for generations.

Knowledge transfer from technical expertise to community leaders is a key component of developing a long-term sustainable water management program.


Domestic water wells provide drinking water supplies for millions of Canadians and protection of the well and aquifer are fundamental to ensuring safe long-term water supplies. For Indigenous communities that rely on independent water wells for their households, a community-based water well management program is an important aspect to establishing safe drinking water supplies and long-term sustainability. Development of such programs will also build water capacity and confidence in the water supply within the community.

Waterline Resources Inc. is a water resource, environmental and information services consulting firm based out of Calgary, AB and Nanaimo, BC, with satellite offices throughout western Canada. Waterline’s staff includes scientists, engineers, computer scientists and data management technicians that specialize in water well design, water quality analysis and aquifer management. Waterline works closely with several Indigenous groups in BC and AB and Waterline employs technical and support staff that recognize themselves as Indigenous. We pride ourselves on exercising scientific principals while working closely with community members to establish strong working relationships and knowledge-based transfer. For Indigenous communities seeking to develop a groundwater resource management strategy, Waterline provides scientific and engineering expertise, as well as training and data management support. Please contact Judy Harvie ( for more information.



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