Residents frame houses as safety risk

The city's water supply could be at risk if new infill housing is put in Riverdale, says a local hydrogeologist. A cocktail of pesticides, fertilizers, sewage and oil could seep into the groundwater and contaminate the city's only drinking source, says John Miller.

The city’s water supply could be at risk if new infill housing is put in Riverdale, says a local hydrogeologist.

A cocktail of pesticides, fertilizers, sewage and oil could seep into the groundwater and contaminate the city’s only drinking source, says John Miller.

The water specialist spoke at a recent public hearing for the 2010 Official Community Plan. He also lives near Boswell and Firth, the most contentious of five infill sites that have been proposed for Riverdale.

While most Riverdale residents are concerned infill will eliminate important recreation spaces and make the area busier, a growing chorus of people are citing water safety as a reason the city shouldn’t develop in their backyards.

The neighbourhood is home to five wellheads, which collectively provide all of the city’s drinking water. One of those wells is directly beneath the greenbelt area sandwiched between Boswell and Firth.

“If someone is living overtop of a well, you’re putting a lot of faith in them that they’ll be good housekeepers,” said Miller, who’s been a hydrogeologist for the past 15 years.

There are many contaminants that can travel from people’s backyards into the ground below.

But Miller is most concerned about the prospect of leaking sewage entering the groundwater supply.

“All infrastructure leaks – all pipes and all sewage leak to some degree, especially in the North where construction is difficult,” he said. “It’s pretty scary.”

Miller points to a 2005 watershed protection plan commissioned by the city.

That study, carried out by AECOM engineers, lists existing risks to the city’s water supply. They found “very high” risks of contamination to the Riverdale aquifer from fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and petroleum.

Slightly less risk was ascribed to the gas station on Lewes Boulevard. and fuel tanks near the Selkirk water well in Riverdale.

Miller wonders why the city would overlook these risk assessments and build even more homes in the neighbourhood.

“You paid these people to look at it and they’re saying you have some potentially high risks there,” said Miller.

“So why would you want to make it worse by just willy-nilly putting high density development back there?”

Miller worked as a junior hydrogeologist in Ontario investigating the contamination of Walkerton’s water supply in 2000, an event linked to the deaths of at least seven people.

That tragedy was linked to a combination of excess farm runoffs and negligent water monitoring.

But a similar situation could happen here if we’re not careful, said Miller, who is originally from Ontario.

“Up here, we don’t invest too much in our water resources,” he said.

“Whereas, in Ontario if this ever came up, or in Saskatchewan where they’ve had issues as well, people would be freaking out saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ But here they’re pretty laissez-faire.”

Following the recent public hearing, city engineer Wayne Tuck met with the Riverdale Community Association to discuss the issue.

Water quality is a concern for the city but risks associated with development have never been raised, he said.

“When we put in new wells in 2006 and 2007, the issue of prohibiting development was never brought up (by the Yukon Water Board and Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board who reviewed the new infrastructure),” he said.

If the city were to actually implement some of the 300- to 900-metre protection zones suggested by citizens, then existing residents would have to be uprooted, he said.

“People who live on Hyland and Firth and Boswell – they wouldn’t be able to live there now,” he said. “All the buildings around Selkirk Street, the Selkirk school, the new affordable housing building … all those buildings, they would go, they wouldn’t be able to stay there.”

Contamination from pesticides, on the other hand, is something the city has talked about and is considering banning in the future, said Tuck.

“If you look at Europe and Quebec, it’s becoming the standard these days,” he said.

The city is also planning to commission a well-water protection study this fall.

But it’s a study that residents, like Miller, think should have been done years ago.

Contact Vivian Belik at