Canadian Utility Handles Sewer And Water For Massive Service Area

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo strives to provide equal sewer and water service to all residents in its 25,000-square-mile service area.
Canadian Utility Handles Sewer And Water For Massive Service Area
The Underground Services team of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo includes (from left) equipment operators Joe Andrews, Alton Stewart, supervisor Steve Polem, foreman Gus Connolly and laborer Steve Gregory. They are flanked on the left by a Hotsy boiler unit and a Petrofield Tornado Hydrovac on the right.

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The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeastern Alberta, Canada, provides utility service to a huge area of almost 25,000 square miles, serving a mix of rural and urban populations. The municipality’s Environmental Services Department is driven by a goal of providing equal service to all its residents. It delivers on that promise through an aggressive maintenance program that sees its entire sewer and water system inspected and maintained annually. 

Fort McMurray is the urban hub of the RMWB, which was formed through amalgamation in 1995 and includes the hamlets of Anzac, Conklin, Fort Chipewyan, Fort McKay, Gregoire Lake Estates, Janvier South and Saprae Creek. 

“The RMWB’s Environmental Services Department operates all public water and wastewater infrastructure within the municipality, but a utility has not yet been formed,” notes Travis Kendel, the manager of the Sustainable Operations branch of Environmental Services, the department that is responsible for operation and maintenance of the water, sewer and stormwater systems of the municipality. “The RMWB has approval from its council, as of Oct. 14, 2014, to take all necessary steps to form the utility.”

Equal access to services

The municipality aims to ensure that all rural residents are provided with high-quality water and sewer service that is dependable and economical. That’s not always easy, given the vast distances involved. The distance from the farthest south service area in Conklin to the farthest north in Fort Chipewyan is more than 200 miles, and some of it is only accessible by air. 

The region’s economy is driven by resource development, with oil and gas leading the way. A need for workers has driven a population increase of more than 125 percent since the year 2000. The current population is estimated at about 116,000 with about 61,000 located in the urban service area of Fort Mac. That includes an estimate of the area’s “shadow population” of short-term and temporary workers. 

“The unknown size of the population is difficult to design for,” says Kendel. “These numbers fluctuate depending on areas of oilsands development as well, causing our demand areas to change.” 

The underground infrastructure of the municipality is relatively young and robust, with pipes in the ground averaging an age of about 20 to 30 years. 

“This can be attributed to the recent economic booms the RMWB has experienced and the drive for urban and rural development that accompanied them,” says Kendel. “Most newer water pipes are PVC, with some ductile iron in the older areas.” 

A wastewater treatment plant serves the urban portion of the RMWB with wastewater conveyed through a combination of gravity sewers and force mains. Sewage lagoons serve outlying hamlets and the rural population.

Climate extremes

Wood Buffalo is subject to a wide variety of climate extremes. The average winter temperature hovers just below zero degrees Fahrenheit with summer averages above 60. However, residents can also swelter in temperatures approaching 100 degrees. 

“Seasonal weather swings can greatly affect the costing of a project, for example providing winter heating for construction during extreme cold,” says Kendel. “Spring, summer and fall present their own unique problems with swamp and muskeg conditions. During seasons where rain is possible and river breakup season in the spring, the proximity of some areas to rivers poses the risk of flooding as well. The same holds true for repairs to existing infrastructure in traditionally wet areas.”

Steve Polem is supervisor of operations in the Underground Services branch of Environmental Services. He’s worked for the municipality since 1997 and reports to Hughie Gillis, head of Underground Services, who has worked there since 1990. 

Many of the department’s workers are veterans, with 20 to 35 years of local experience under their belts.

Upsizing for growth

“The population is twice as large as when I started working here, so a lot of the work we’re doing with new infrastructure involves upsizing the systems to handle the current population,” says Polem. “With the level of growth, all of the infrastructure tends to need upsizing in the most heavily populated areas, so we try to coordinate upgrading sewer, water, roads and sidewalks all at once in different sections of town.” 

The municipality has upgraded its sewage system using cured-in-place pipe lining and pipe bursting, but those projects, in addition to major construction, are generally handled by outside contractors. 

“All of our new construction goes quite deep to get below the frost line,” says Gillis. “Our engineering standard is 3.5 meters [11.5 feet] on the water side and 2.5 to 3 meters [8 to 10 feet] on the sewer side.” 

While new construction might expose pockets of the petroleum-rich soils of the oilsands, most excavations replace that soil with fresh granular material, so it’s not often encountered in repair work. 

The size of the region makes effective travel to all parts of the system virtually impossible. Ice roads allow truck travel during the winter, but emerging swamp and muskeg in the warmer months makes air travel the only reliable form of transportation. To ensure the residents are well served, some workers with Underground Services are permanently stationed in hamlets such as Fort Chipewyan. 

“Even within our service maintenance area, we sometimes have to drive an hour and a half to answer a call,” Polem says.  

In-house crews handle emergency response calls, which are generally related to water pipe leaks caused by frost heave or slow erosion of the pipe walls by pockets of acidic soil. Sewer backups are often caused by a buildup of frozen grease, particularly around hotels and restaurants.

“We often have to go in with a combo truck and a Hotsy hot-water unit to melt and remove the blockage,” says Gillis. 

The department supplies its workers with professionally rated cold-weather gear to handle outdoor work in the dead of winter when temperatures routinely drop below -40 degrees Fahrenheit. 

An aggressive maintenance program

However, Wood Buffalo isn’t resting on its laurels, given the excellent condition of its infrastructure. The entire sewer system is inspected yearly using the department’s Cubex van and CCTV camera. Crews operate four Vactor combo trucks to clean the entire system annually as well.

The water system is also completely flushed and scaled annually. 

While some rural residents have relied on private contractors to supply water and provide sewage pumping services, the municipality is making good on its commitment to provide equal service to all residents. The department will soon be offering water delivery and sewage pumping service to every resident of Wood Buffalo at the same utility rate Fort Mac residents pay for water and sewage services. 

“We have eight Peterbilts — four sewage trucks and four potable water trucks with insulated aluminum tanks — waiting to go into service at the delivery yard in Edmonton,” says Gillis.

The new municipal service will be initiated in the spring. While the sewage will be transported to the region’s lagoon system for now, a new wastewater treatment plant is currently under construction in the hamlet of Anzac. 

“The department’s motto is that no resident goes without if we have anything to say about it,” Polem says. “We will do what we can to make that happen, whatever it takes.”


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