Save Our Spring is right

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by Nikki Mantell on January 27, 2011

Now that the Final Screening Report has been released by the federal government, the plans to extend Hwy 5 from Farm Point to Hwy 366 in Wakefield can legally move forward.

But for the Save Our Spring organizers, and the 2,800 people who signed their petition, this is not good news. Or rather, not good enough. They are not against the extension as such, but they are lobbying hard to convince the province to do a more recent environmental assessment that could better protect the Wakefield spring from contamination.

If SOS succeeds, it would be the best possible outcome for all regular users of this cherished historic water source. But convincing the province won’t be easy.

First, a provincial environmental impact study, done in 1987, already exists.

Second, the federal screening report released in December provides a list categorizing   every area of concern – from air quality to ground water, from wetlands to fish, mammals and human beings – and deems in summary that the impact of highway construction and later use on each as “not significant.” Hence the green light to go ahead with construction.

But that same screening document, SOS rightly points out, show that groundwater is at risk. Valle Verde (located near Brown Lake Rd) is an “excellent” aquifer, but at risk from contamination by salt and other road residue, as well as from construction detritus.

However, the federal report considers the impact “not significant” on the Wakefield spring, surmising it finds its source elsewhere, including the gravel pit on Rockhurst Rd.

It also points out that low-level contamination is already occurring without construction. Since 2003 the municipality has been sending samples to Health Canada, which found rising levels of total coliforms.

“The presence of total coliforms in an untreated underground spring does not necessarily indicate fecal contamination. However, it does indicate degradation in water quality. This suggests surface water infiltration, which in turn suggests that the ground water is vulnerable to contamination.”

Kudos to the municipality, whose sleuthing work also discovered people too lazy to carry containers from their cars were using contaminated hoses to connect to the spring’s access pipes. Municipal workers now disinfect the spring valve which has remedied the issue.

The problem is, all sides agree, that no one can really determine the source of the Wakefield spring. There are likely many. And there are many ways the water can get contaminated: new highway construction, users with dirty hoses, surface water runoff from existing traffic on Valley Drive.

It might give the SOS reason to shut up and let the highway construction – which should, and must be built – go forward as planned.

But SOS is right in its protective stance. The federal report is based on a grievously outdated environmental impact study, and the regulations surrounding groundwater protection have changed.

Drinking water, the Council of Canadians which has thrown its support behind SOS, argues, is not a “commodity” or a “resource”; it’s a basic human right. The Wakefield Spring provides 5,000 users clean drinking water.

It may not yield data more definitive than the first, but the request for an up-to-date environmental study on something so vital is totally justifiable.

For a project of more than $115 million, and 25 years in the making, will Gatineau Hills residents remember a few extra dollars on their tax bill? Or an extra year to see the Hwy 5 completion? No. But they will never forget the day contamination turned off the Wakefield Spring tap.