April 6, 2015
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is not about to let the challenges of supplying safe water to its northern Alberta communities get in its way. In fact, it is using it as inspiration for innovation, say officials.
Speaking with Travis Kendel, manager of sustainable operations at the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, you would think he has seen it all.
Yet in fact, that is probably what he would say about most water and wastewater staff working in the northern Alberta region that he calls home.
"Sure, some unique opportunities exist within the region," understates Kendel, who has been with the municipality since 2011.
"Because we service such a large area with such different demands and, really, different water bodies, we need to have a multitude of treatment facilities.
"To give credit to our operators, they’ve done an absolutely incredible job in operating, constructing and participating in everything we’ve done within the region. It’s really worldclass."
To be fair, Wood Buffalo had its work cut out for itself even before the region's population grew by an average of seven per cent annually from 2000 to 2010. Challenged by its relatively remote location, heavy industrial use and, as Kendel noted, vast coverage area, the municipality is regularly confronted with many of the same challenges that its northern communities in Canada face.
In its 2014 Canadian Municipal Water Priorities Report, the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium said addressing the needs of Canada’s small and aboriginal communities remains a major stumbling block. It noted the provision of safe, potable water continues to be an issue in these communities due to challenges in the governance, design, construction, financing and operation of water systems.
The existence of individual municipal management entities for thousands of smaller communities in Canada has resulted in a large number of systems that struggle to adequately support needed investments, or to maintain the necessary levels of expertise to operate systems effectively, said the report.
The good news for Wood Buffalo is these challenges created what Kendel calls opportunities.
"There’s a number of different aspects to it – some of them good, some of them bad — but they are all opportunities that we can work with," he says.
"We’re doing water operations and water treatment at a complexity and scale that most communities don’t do. In large communities, you might have two large treatment plants. We’ve got six, and they’re covering a very large area. To drive from the farthest one in the north to the most southern one, you’re look at a onehour flight or two hour drive."
For the record, Wood Buffalo's water and wastewater division covers the communities of Fort McMurray, Conklin, Janvier, Anzac, Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan. The municipality's water-treatment infrastructure is represented primarily by plants in Fort McMurray, Fort McKay, Fort Chipewyan, Conklin and Janvier. Fort McMurray also sends water about 40 kilometres south to Anzac. Most recently, Wood Buffalo recently finished an expansion project at its Fort McMurray treatment plant that doubled its capacity.
Kendel says the upgraded facility, previously able to meet the needs of 130,000 people, is now suited for up to 235,000. The municipality finished commissioning the plant prior to Christmas. Kendel says the plant is currently processing around 40,000 m3 per day, with that expected to increase now that construction is complete.
"We also just increased the size of our Conklin facility to treat up to 2,000 people," adds Kendel. "It was quite small before. Now it’s been sized to meet the needs of the community for the foreseeable future, as well as the industrial needs of clients around there."
Conklin is still in the commissioning mode with Wood Buffalo preparing to ramp up operations for full use.
In fact, Kendel notes small-scale plants pose some of the largest challenges for the region.
"With its distance from a larger centre such as Fort McMurray, we don’t get the same efficiencies with a small plant," he says.
"So there’s a lot of waste, you spend a lot of time and you don’t generate a lot of water."
In turn, Wood Buffalo has turned its attention to the nearby oilsands industry industry so close to these smaller communities, the municipality can increase the size of its treatment plants and, in turn, their efficiency while also being able to generate revenue that offsets costs to local residents.
"It’s a kind of an everyone-wins scenario," he says.
"As we size our plants and look at communities to add to the infrastructure, we definitely consider the industrial demands of those areas and we try our best to meet those needs and maximize our efficiencies, both to decrease the rate dependency on residents and lower their costs as well as to generate some revenue to pay for other projects within the municipality."
Wood Buffalo has also embarked on an initiative that will enable itself to better predict future needs by using water use as an indicator of the regions's true population. Kendel notes the municipality has struggled in the past nailing down how many people are in the area due to a large transient workforce brought to the region by the nearby oilsands industry.
"All of those people need the services," he says. "They need roads, they need water, they need wastewater, but we don’t get a population count for them. So by tracking our water use and how it spikes and how it declines, we can paint an interesting picture of how the population in our region fluctuates over time. It helps us anticipate demand, as well as gives us a picture of how much of the population we’re actually capturing."
Perhaps not coincidental, Kendel adds that after playing catch-up with population gains in recent years, Wood Buffalo's water and wastewater capacity has recently surpassed demand.
"We’ve just hit this point where we’ve met the needs of the region, we have some capacity for the future and we’re looking forward to keep that pace going – not so much to increase capacity, but more to develop ourselves as leaders in the field and increase efficiencies at the plant so that we’re getting the most bang for the buck for the community," he says.
Wood Buffalo currently pulls its water from several different sources, further adding complexity to the treatment process. Starting from the south in Conklin, the water supply comes off Christina Lake, followed by Fort McMurray, which sources the Athabasca River. Farther north, communities such as FortMackay pulls off the Ells River, while Fort Chipewyan looks to Lake Athabasca just north of the Athabasca Delta. The "opportunities" exist when the water sources, such as the Ells River, are smaller and closer to the community, making treatment more difficult. Forest fires in the area, which can add debris to the water, can also impact the treatment process.
In lakes, where temperatures can change drastically, the municipality has to be aware of what’s going on in the water bodies, and how that impacts the treatability and quality of the water, says Kendel.
"If you look at Fort McMurray, the river goes through some natural cycles where, in the winter, it’s very clean and there’s very little dust and sediment," he says.
"Yet as you come through spring into the summer and as ice breaks and there's a lot of sediment in the river, we have to monitor our intake and be careful on how we’re treating the water so we can maintain quality standards and make sure we’re providing the best water."
“There are definitely a lot of unique challenges and a lot of unique perspectives, particularly around the oil and gas sector, that really add to the complexity of the treatment process. At the end of the day, we’re still about providing water that’s clean and safe to everybody in our community, regardless of where they live.”
To address varying conditions, Wood Buffalo has also been aggressive in applying new technologies to the treatment process in efforts to improve overall water quality.
Many of the municipality’s facilities are now bringing UV online – an increasingly popular industry standard that disinfects the water by disrupting micro-organisms’ genetic material and rending them incapable of reproduction. Wood Buffalo is also adopting new technologies in Fort McMurray that use an active-flow process.
“It’s a balanced fluctuation where you go through a similar (treatment) process – you add your coagulant, you create a flock and settle it out – but to make that quicker, you add very fine, heavy sand to the mix,” explains Kendel.
“It helps everything settle that much faster. So you can put through the same amount of water, but in a much shorter period of time. Kendel also notes its Fort Mackay plant was one of the first in Canada to adopt membranes to the treatment process. Membranes use pressure and a fine filter to remove particulates and everything else in the water. Wood Buffalo is even finding uses for excess sludge created during the treatment process.
The municipality takes the leftover organic material, de-waters it and then uses large composting tunnels at the wastewater treatment plant in Fort McMurray.
“We add in a lot of air and do a rapid curing and rapid composting at the wastewater treatment plant facility,” says Kendel.
“Then, after a few weeks time, we will have trucks that bring it to the landfill where it finalizes the curing process. We’ll use that, in combination with wood chips, to top dress some of our landscaping within the community."
Moving forward, Kendel says Wood Buffalo will be looking to better interface with industry to use their existing pipeline infrastructure to provide redundant water supplies across the region. In addition, the municipality is continuing to pursue what it calls the creation of a regional ecosystem.
“We want to be the ones facilitating a transfer of water, wastewater, waste product and a bunch of other commodities between industry and our communities so that we can minimize waste, increase efficiencies and eventually decrease the impact on the environment,” he says.
Jamie Zachary is the editor of PROCESSWest.