Analog dials, switches, and gauges merge with computer screens and digital technology at the Welland water treatment plant. DON RICKERS PHOTOS

“It’s the most expensive Brita filter you can find”

It’s what one might call a fluid situation. There are six municipal water treatment plants in the Niagara Region (Welland, DeCew Falls, Port Colborne, Niagara Falls, Grimsby, and Rosehill-Fort Erie) with surface water intakes which supply over 80 percent of the population with clean H2O. The only one of the 12 sub-municipalities not part of the network is Wainfleet, which relies primarily on private wells and cisterns.

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Niagara is different from many other municipalities in the province, covering a large geographical area with a relatively low population density. Hamilton/Wentworth has only two plants, one for freshwater treatment, and one for wastewater, compared to Niagara’s six.

The Welland Water Treatment Plant, which supplies potable water to Welland, Pelham, and parts of Thorold, was originally constructed in 1910 and has been upgraded several times. In 1979, the facility produced 100 million litres of fresh water each day, built to supply large industrial water users with few conservation measures in place. The water demand in Welland has declined over the years due to the loss of those industrial users, water conservation efforts, and the evolution of stricter billing practices.

The Region’s integrated system occasionally requires expensive upgrades that necessitate the approval of political decision-makers. To this end, Joe Tonellato, Niagara’s Director of Water Operations and Maintenance, and Commissioner of Public Works, Bruce Zvaniga, invited Niagara Regional Councillors Marvin Junkin (Pelham) and George Darte (St. Catharines) to take a guided tour of the Welland facilities. The Voice tagged along to get a handle on the complex process that culminates with safe water that flows from our kitchen faucets.

As one approaches the plant, it’s clear that there is a high level of security and limited access, with high chain-link fencing surrounding the facility. Clean drinking water is serious business.

“A century ago, the water quality operators were very mobile individuals,” said Adrian Rittner, Manager of Water Operations. “They walked around with clipboards, checking analog dials and taking readings, and then coming back an hour later, and then the same thing, hour after hour. Once they had enough data points, they could see trends and patterns developing, so they could be a little bit more predictive in their work.”

Today, the high-tech control room and laboratory are the epicentre of the water quality universe. The primary tool since the early 1990s is called SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), a computerized interface using coloured graphics to communicate with equipment in the facility, and other facilities that are off-site.

“Prior to SCADA, everything was on manual motor control — switches, dials, indicator lights,” said Rittner. “We would throw a switch to open a valve. Now the operator clicks a keyboard mouse on the interface to open the valve. With SCADA, the operator has 100 percent control of the entire plant, and can see every instrument, every gauges for process control. Plus, data is tracked and stored for compliance purposes.”

With SCADA, the operator has 100 percent control of the entire plant, and can see every instrument, every gauges for process control

Rittner assured his visitors that the water quality system is not limited to on a sole operator perched at a control panel all day.

“We have a complete regimen of samples that we examine throughout the day, and using our laboratory equipment, continuously check and analyze to confirm water quality,” he said.

So how does one become a water treatment specialist?

“When I was growing up, I didn’t decide to attend university to become a water treatment operator,” said Rittner. “With the Safe Drinking Water Act of 2002, new regulations, testing, and certification came into effect, and a sort of apprenticeship concept was developed.

“Twenty years ago, the veterans taught the new employees everything they needed to know. Today, almost all candidates for jobs in freshwater management have studied environmental science. We hire a lot of people out of Niagara College’s environmental field and laboratory course.”

The water that streams into the Welland treatment plant comes from Lake Erie via the Welland Canal.

“It’s a good highway of water, because it’s always moving,” said Rittner, who also noted that Erie is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, and prone to algae blooms, especially during the summer, due to nutrient and phosphorus runoff, often caused by fertilizer use.

Primary filtration, using huge beds of granular activated carbon spread a metre thick, removes most of the algae, and is one of the most technologically advanced (and costly) ways of treating conventional surface water.

“It’s the most expensive Brita filter you can find,” said Rittner. “You’re looking at millions of dollars of activated carbon.”

It’s the most expensive Brita filter you can find. You’re looking at millions of dollars of activated carbon.

Another part of the clean water process, called flocculation, involves the clumping together of suspended organic particles using a chemical coagulant. The clumps fall into a sedimentary basin, and the clean water runs off the top. The resultant sludge is a useful by-product, as the extracted organics are hauled to farmers’ fields to enrich the soil.

With 90 percent of the impurities removed from the treated water, to the naked eye it appears clear and potable. But dangerous pathogens potentially still lurk in the form of viruses, bacteria, and other micro-organisms.

“There are good bacteria and bad bacteria, but we can’t differentiate,” said Rittner. “We need to deactivate and disinfect. Viruses are microscopic, and will bleed right through the filtration process.”

The solution? Sodium hypochlorite, or what is known in the pool industry as liquid chlorine. It completely oxidizes and destroys viruses.

Zebra mussels are another concern. They are an invasive species, which arrived in the Great Lakes in the 1980s via ballast water that was discharged from ocean-going ships from Europe. They cause problems by colonizing on intake and outflow pipes and mechanical structures. But zebra mussels don’t like chlorine either, so they get a wash with sodium hypochlorite as well.

When the water leaves the plant fully-treated, it’s pumped into storage facilities such as water towers and reservoirs that have a capacity of 10 million litres. It’s not uncommon for the plant to temporarily shut down, with the entire service area getting its water from elevated tanks that are gravity-fed.

John Brunet, Associate Director of Water Operations and Maintenance, said that Niagara is at the top of the heap in the province with regard to water quality.

“Our data and inspection ratings place us in the highest percentile,” he said. “We just went three consecutive years with 100 percent scores across all six facilities. We go way above and beyond what the Ontario ministry demands.”

We just went three consecutive years with 100 percent scores across all six facilities

Is Niagara’s tap water as good as bottled water?

“Some people might think that bottled water tastes better than tap water,” said Brunet. “But Niagara tap water is much safer. There are few testing regulations on bottled water. Most of it in Ontario is pumped out of the ground in Wellington County. They don’t do the degree of analysis that we perform.”

Rittner said that he’s not in the business of bashing bottled water, and understands it has a certain practicality.

“If you drink a glass of lukewarm tap water, it’s not going to taste as good as cold bottled water,” he said. “But take your tap water and chill it in the fridge, and you won’t be able to tell the difference.”

Water fluoridation remains a contentious issue in Canada, and some municipal governments — including Niagara Region — choose not to fluoridate their water supply. Approximately 70 percent of Ontarians have access to fluoridated water. The World Health Organization and Health Canada cite evidence that shows fluoridation as a safe and effective method of dental cavity prevention, while detractors cite high costs and exaggerated and false claims of health risks.

(Scratch an anti-fluoride activist and you’ll likely find an anti-vaxxer too. At a September 2020 gathering of the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology—a fringe group of dentists pushing unsupported theories about dental fillings—there appeared a who’s who of the anti-vaccination and Covid-19 conspiracy-theory movements, according to reporting by the National Post. Among them was a Canadian researcher presenting her debunked theory that linked fluoridated water and lower child IQ. Also in the rogues gallery, reported the National Post, were “defrocked British doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose study linking vaccines and autism was exposed as fraudulent, and Judy Mikovits, a former biochemist who starred in a viral video that promulgated a litany of false information on the coronavirus.”)

Ageing equipment needs to be repaired or replaced to maintain water quality, but some parts of antiquated machinery are almost impossible to source.

In 2012, the Region completed an environmental assessment, at which time it was determined that the plant was nearing the end of its life cycle, and it was no longer feasible to consider further upgrades. The preferred option was to replace the plant on the north side of the existing facility location.

While the cost of installing the latest water treatment technology and infrastructure to provide optimal efficiency is high, the two top annual expenditures at the plant are in chemicals and staff salaries.

Construction of Phase One of the Welland Water Treatment Plant replacement was completed in the spring of 2018. A portion of the existing plant was decommissioned, resulting in a capacity of 68 million litres per day, which meets existing demands. Phase Two of the rebuild, when completed, will result in a capacity of 73 million litres per day, within the parameters of the Region’s master servicing plan. The design also allows expansion of the plant’s capacity to over 100 million litres per day in the future, if required.

The cost of Phase Two could hit $80 to $85 million, said Brunet. The biggest line item of the project is the concrete work, including the drilling of 400 pilings into bedrock at depths of between 30 and 75 feet to anchor the structure.

 

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