He keeps water cool, clear
McCowan ensure water meets standards

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Aug 18/00) - Water is something we take for granted. We turn on the taps and sure enough it's there.

In Fort Simpson, water treatment operator Gerry McCowan and his supervisor Steve Squirrel are responsible for ensuring that village residents have clean and safe drinking water.

On an average day, Fort Simpson consumes 400,000 litres of water for all sorts of purposes, according to McCowan.

However, the water treatment plant is capable of producing up to 1.4 million litres of water per day.

The process starts at the pump house, a small wooden building where the murky, silty water is sucked from the Mackenzie. From there it is piped into the water treatment plant where it undergoes a thorough cleansing process through a series of pipes and tanks, such as the gravity pre-settler, the flocculation cells and the clarifier. It takes a drop of water one-and-a-half hours to complete the process, McCowan explained.

A number of chemicals, such as alum, poly-electrolytes, sodium fluoride and liquid aluminum sulphate, are added to the water in various stages to treat it. All are added in trace amounts, less than one part per million, McCowan noted. Finally, chlorine is used to disinfect the water.

"If you don't add the chemicals to it, then you've got unsafe drinking water," said McCowan, who added that Fort Simpson's water exceeds the minimum standards established by the Department of Health.

To that end, there hasn't even been a boil-water order in the community during his eight years on the job, he said.

He also pointed out that many trace elements exist naturally, and unnaturally, in water.

"I can find anything in water. You name it, I can find it -- gold, silver, whatever. But it's such a minuscule amount, it's meaningless," he explained.

Some days the Mackenzie's water contains more silt than others, depending on the time of year (spring sees it at its heaviest) and the weather conditions -- wind and rain contribute more sediment and the volume of powdered chemicals is adjusted accordingly.

The control panel, a complex board consisting of wires and timing devices, is used to automate parts of the process.

The employees also perform daily checks for water colour, PH balance and temperature. The job involves a great deal of calculating -- pro-rating and extrapolating.

Between them, McCowan and Squirrel cover an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift with some overlap. Even after-hours they have clean water on their minds.

"Steve or I is usually down here at night to check on things before we go to bed ... and about three times per day on weekends," McCowan said.

The plant has two reservoirs. The one underneath the building holds 544,800 litres. The other, underground beside the building, stores 886,400 litres. There are five pumps to keep the treated water flowing into the water main and then into your tap.

Four of the pumps are essentially back-ups, "in case everyone in town flushed at the same time," he joked. The diesel pumps, also known as "fire pumps," can also be thrown into action when firefighters require large volumes of water from hydrants.

The treatment plant also contains a generator that keeps the water coming even during a power outage.