A battle is brewing between Chilliwack and the local health authority after Fraser Health told council Tuesday that the city must begin chlorinating its water.
Citing the discovery of e.coli in the Chilliwack water system over three of the last four summers, Fraser Health medical health officer Dr. Marcus Lem told council that the city will be required to add chlorine to its water.
Lem said present testing methods sample only a tiny fragment of Chilliwack's water and told council "you probably have e.coli contamination within your water system all the time."
But Mayor Sharon Gaetz and the five present councillors (Coun. Ken Huttema was absent) all expressed pride in the city's water and questioned whether chlorination is necessary.
"You truly have picked a battle in the community in terms of some of the best drinking water in Canada," Coun. Chuck Stam said. "In introducing something like chlorination to the system, I don't envy your job one bit in making that decision."
Lem provocatively said that while he would drink the water, he wouldn't let his daughter do the same.
"The risk is very, very real," Lem said. He said the $1.5 million price tag would be relatively cheap, in part because of the city's "excellent system."
Lem added that chlorination would not change the water's award-winning taste.
But Gaetz disagreed: "We know that it will change the way our water tastes," she said.
On Wednesday, she told the Times that Lem didn't convince council that there was any pressing need for chlorination. Gaetz cited the lack of evidence that anyone has become sick because they drank Chilliwack's water. (Lem had told council incidences of water-caused illness and diarrhea are rarely reported).
"This kind of news is coming as rather shocking to us," Gaetz had told Lem at the council meeting. "Obviously we feel very defensive about this because we think our staff has done a fantastic job."
Lem said that with chlorination, residual chlorine levels could be monitored consistently and provide immediate notice of any breaches in Chilliwack's water system. And he predicted that without chlorination, e.coli contamination would continue to happen.
"That's what I find worrisome," he said.
But Gaetz said the roots of the previous e.coli problems have been identified and remedied.
She told the Times that a vandal, a bat, and possibly a fire hose were likely responsible for the three previous contaminations. Each contamination was quickly detected, she said, with no illnesses reported.
"The number of incidents have been so few, and when you think you're serving 80,000 people, that's quite remarkable," she said. "I wish I could show people what kind of work happens before the water hits their tap, what kind of measures our staff have put in place and monitored."
The health authority has pledged to begin consulting with residents and Gaetz is hoping that the public can persuade them to ease off their stance.
On Friday, the city added Lem's phone number to a tweet that Fraser Health would require the chlorination of "award winning Chilliwack water." That tweet was later deleted.
"Fraser Health needs to demonstrate to the City of Chilliwack that this is really needed. We have not had reports of illness," Gaetz said. "I would encourage people to let their views be known to Fraser Health."
Less than 24 hours after Tuesday's council meeting, Gaetz said residents were already speaking up against chlorination. Still, she said she doubts that the health authority is willing to change their mind.
"Fraser Health has all the authority and there's nothing that we can say or do that will seem to have any kind of impact," she said.