Empowering First Steps

Atlantic First Nations Water Authority makes history as first Indigenous water and wastewater utility in Canada

Empowering First Steps

Lead project engineer Laura Jenkins and process engineer Zach Levisky at Paqtnkek, one of 17 First Nations communities served by AFNWA.

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In 2019, the ministry of Indigenous Services Canada was created, following the dissolution of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. The ISC is responsible to Parliament, with a mandate to work “collaboratively with partners to improve access to high quality services for First Nations, Inuit and Métis” peoples.

On November 7, 2022, an agreement was formally signed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, recognizing the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority as the first Indigenous water utility in the country. This significant milestone puts control of water and wastewater firmly in the hands of First Nations, initiating transfer of responsibility for the operation, maintenance, and capital upgrades of all water and wastewater assets in participating First Nations to the Indigenous-owned, nonprofit AFNWA.

According to John Lam, AFNWA’s manager of engineering, his organization will serve all participating First Nations communities in Atlantic Canada, including Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland/Labrador. 

“Currently, the communities that have expressed an interest in membership have been from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI,” Lam says. “That would be just a fraction of communities in these areas, but it’s more than 50% of the population.”

Making it stick

There was a December deadline to get joining commitments from a number of communities, for which each had to pass a Band Council Resolution confirming that the AFNWA is taking over responsibility to provide their water and wastewater services. ISC now has a commitment to fund a program through AFNWA, to deliver water and wastewater system upgrades and operations. AFNWA in return accepts responsibility to properly steward those funds to ensure these services are delivered to participating First Nations communities.

Ahead of the transfer, AFNWA hired Dillon Consulting of St. John, New Brunswick, to survey current infrastructure assets. AFNWA needed to get a handle on what it’s going to manage and operate moving forward, as well as these assets’ condition. As one of the project deliverables, Dillon prepared a 10-year capital plan for all projects required to repair, replace and upgrade those assets and facilities.

Julie DiCicco, Dillon’s environmental engineer, puts this into perspective: “The water authority choosing to do asset management as one of their first big capstone projects is a major shift for First Nations,” referring to management of Canadian First Nations infrastructure. 

She explains that First Nations communities have in the past, “often been left with insufficient funding to complete reactionary repairs. This is why you see the greatest discrepancies between municipal infrastructure versus First Nations infrastructure.” 

The water authority completing an asset management plan signaled its intention to switch to more proactive planning. This led to the capital plan, Dillon’s ultimate deliverable.

Based on these plans, the budget was submitted to the federal government, and approved. “So, we have a commitment from the government to provide that funding over the 10-year period, for the work of delivering water and wastewater services,” Lam says.

Foundational footwork

The AFNWA came about as a result of regional work by the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs. A number of the representatives and attendees at the conference gathered to talk about the state of existing water and wastewater services. Clearly, existing management of these resources was falling far short of the mark. 

Through a series of workshops and other meetings, they determined that a regional water utility — owned and operated by First Nations, for First Nations — would provide them with the self-governing sovereignty they sought, as well as control over their water and wastewater system quality.

A report was prepared, looking at the governance and management structure of effective water utilities. It determined that a full-service, decentralized system would best serve these communities. It envisioned a headquarters that would provide some of the more technical skills, corporate and IT services, as well as housing an engineering department. Service areas would be delineated for each of the localized regions across Atlantic Canada, with one community in each service area designated as its hub, to provide support to water and wastewater operators in each of its communities.

Shaping the plan

DiCicco recalls that when Dillon was awarded the contract, they had their work cut out for them. “We were going to be starting on a journey of creating 17 different asset management plans, so the first deliverable was a framework,” which would hold the effort together as a cohesive project. “This framework originally was meant to guide what the asset management plans were going to look like, and it did. But it also helped to guide the entire asset management system.”

Describing a graphic created for the official framework document, she explains:

“If you can picture looking from above into a wigwam, that’s represented by the circle in the middle.” The four pillars (represented by different colors around the center), she says, are:

People and Leadership “This is who governs the asset management system: the inputters, the main people that are going to be utilizing the information.”

Information “The inventory, condition and system performance.”

Life cycle process “The level of service and risk; understanding the level of service you’re currently providing, and what risks are associated with your assets and potentially not providing that level of service; then life cycle strategy.”

Financial sustainability “The long-term look at project needs. The capital plans were a component of this; part of the water authority’s regular business planning. They have multiple different plans, all integrated into this main capital plan. Then the funding, secured with Indigenous Services Canada. The funding doesn’t fall unless you do all of this work.”

The outer ring of the stylized wigwam’s interior lists components of each of these four pillars that support the operational concept. 

In its totality, the graphic framework embodies “an understanding of what we own, where it’s located, the value of our assets. This was the biggest thing (to eliminate data gaps); to gather the information together in a template in one place, that’s consistent across all communities.”

How it works

When it comes to day-to-day operations, the water authority plans to help engineer its asset management projects, but largely hire proven outside contractors, and trust them to capably perform the work.

“Most of the work will be contracted to others, including design, which we don’t have a production team for. They’re more skilled and experienced,” Lam explains. “Very minor repairs and replacements, we can do internally. If a chemical feed pump has failed, we’d be able to buy and install a replacement pump. But if it’s more intense — like lining of sewers, upgrades of water and wastewater treatment facilities, or even pipe in the ground — if it’s more than just a very short section, we won’t have the equipment to do the excavation, trenching and pipe-laying.

“Drafting and specification writing, we’ll probably be getting consultants to do that work; unless it’s something very straightforward, then we might take that on ourselves. Though we have a fairly healthy number of technical staff, a lot of (their work) is to identify problems and get the right people on those pieces of work, whether it’s design, construction or troubleshooting.”

Lam has 42 years of engineering experience, but tries to stay out of designers’ way. “They’re the professionals. I will have a lot of questions for them, make sure they’re addressing (the right issue) and that I feel comfortable with it. But I’m going to stay out of micromanaging as much as possible, knowing I’ve gone through the designs of a lot of these components. Bringing some fresh eyes and new technology really assists.”

DiCicco feels that this level of professional oversight will be a major factor in the higher success rate for such projects, expected under the new water authority. “This level of oversight hasn’t been available for First Nations communities, at least in Atlantic Canada, where it used to stay with the Indigenous Services Canada engineer. This lack of oversight sometimes caused systems that were not up to what was actually meant to be designed for. Some did not consider population growth, for example. So I think the level of presence as an organization is welcome for these communities.

New approach

Lam agrees that one of the strengths of this new model will be a willingness to take reasonable risks on newer, more appropriate technology in existing asset repair and replacement. “Sometimes it’s less risky to say, ‘Let’s replace everything,’ when maybe that’s not necessary, it’s overkill. Maybe you could get more done by spot repairing, or at least finding out what else you can do, which is a more holistic approach.”

The first measure to reach such an approach is knowing the totality of what the authority must deal with. They’ve begun water and wastewater initiatives to make that possible. One concerns flow assessment. Dillon’s research showed a dearth of accurate data, so they’re currently, where necessary, installing flowmeters. This allows them to work with definitive data rather than theoretical flows, which is what they had to go on for the initial asset management plans. 

“Part of this program is phase one of the inflow and infiltration studies we want to initiate, to see what we’re dealing with, and where are some of the quick wins that would allow us to tighten up our systems; lining of sewers, maybe dealing with missing manhole covers. We want to identify possible retrofits and remedies that might address I&I in the wastewater systems. Also, how much drinking water are we losing from leaks and other loss scenarios? Right now, we don’t know.”

Future tech

Another initiative involves the standardization of the communities’ SCADA systems. Aligning software and hardware for controlling and communicating with different devices like pumps, blowers and other equipment will allow the authority to provide support from hub communities as well as headquarters, while also enabling staff to spot real-time trending within the facilities. The authority is working with Toronto’s Eramosa Engineering in this effort.

One of Dillon’s deliverables was preparing a roadmap for implementing accurate, comprehensive and timely asset management planning in the utility. This included how to form an oversight committee and all its necessary tasks to keep asset management planning up to date, how to do annual reviews; update the schedules and prioritize the projects, and so on. The committee will quickly be called upon to research and identify a software platform to automate and digitize the gathering, storage and sharing of historic, existing and new data on assets.

Lam acknowledges this will be an ongoing effort. “It can’t be just a snapshot in time, then it becomes old information very quickly. We need to be able to keep that information up to date. Whenever we change some equipment, there’s got to be a process to have that workflow feed back into the capital planning. That information needs to be recorded, and that’s part of a computerized maintenance management system.”

DiCicco says it all starts with a genuine desire to change the status quo. “It’s baby steps that need to start happening, and a shift in the way you think. You need to have people championing this, and wanting it. For data reasons, start with your inventory, and make sure that’s tight. Know what you’re doing, and what you’re operating.”

Lam agrees. “You need to have the community really want to do this, and to work with the field team. You will end up with a much better product in the end.”


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