Fernie Drinking Water: Then and Now

Since time immemorial, the Elk River Watershed has provided water for all living things in the Elk Valley. Over the last century, considerable progress has been made to improve Fernie water supply, but new issues are arising. In Fernie, three quarters of drinking water is supplied by the Fairy Creek watershed, nestled in the valley between Mt. Fernie, Mt. Proctor, and the Three Sisters. The remainder is currently supplied by an aquifer in James White Park, but that may soon change. 

Early Water Quality Issues
Over a century ago, a primary problem for Fernie water was inconsistent flow rates. As with all watersheds in the Elk Valley, water levels fluctuate between high levels during snowmelt (May-June), and low levels during late summer to winter (August-March). In the early 1900s, an impoundment dam was built upstream of Fairy Creek Falls to collect and store water so that it could be used during low water periods.

Once water quantity was mostly handled, water quality became the bigger concern. During high water levels fast moving water picks up anything in its way, including sediments, plant matter, or animal droppings. Until the 1980s, water was piped directly from Fairy Creek into town, completely untreated. Any debris or biological contaminants (including giardia and cryptosporidium) were in the supply, making it the user’s responsibility to thoroughly boil water. It wasn’t until 1983 that a new dam was constructed, and a screen was added to remove larger debris. It took another decade for a chlorination station to be built to kill bacteria, and in 2018 the James White Park water well became active to provide an alternate water source during high turbidity levels in Fairy Creek.

Current Issues: Leakage and Selenium
Under the city, 81 km of piping ranging in age and quality connects homes to the water supply. In 2015, the City of Fernie conducted a study on water uses and found that over 50% of water was lost to leakage; this water was collected and treated but wasn’t making it to the taps.  While the City is responsible for municipal pipes, there is no requirement for private properties to maintain their pipe infrastructure. To solve this problem, the City is increasing proactive leak detection and introducing bylaws to action repairs on private properties. 

Another concern, which recently reached wide-scale attention, is selenium contamination of the James White wells by water infiltration from the Elk River. Elk Valley rocks naturally contain selenium, but the breaking up of rocks to mine coal exposes a greater surface area to the rain, wind, and snow. This causes the rock to erode faster than natural levels, which causes significant increases in selenium concentrations. British Columbia’s drinking water guidelines mandate that selenium concentrations may not exceed 10 micrograms of selenium per liter of water; these levels are occasionally exceeded in the Elk River by Fernie. The City monitors the James White well every week and has to shut down the well when the concentrations exceed provincial guidelines. 

To prevent the reliance on aquifers impacted by Elk River selenium contamination, the City of Fernie is currently working with Teck to find an alternative aquifer that can be used during high turbidity levels in Fairy Creek. Additionally, the City is looking into treatment options to filter Fairy Creek water when turbidity levels are high. 

Watch the Talk to Learn More
This article is based on a presentation by City of Fernie project engineer Joanna Line, who spoke about the History of Fernie Drinking Water at the Knowing Water Symposium on April 3, 2024. The symposium was hosted by the Elk River Watershed Collaborative Monitoring Program with the goal of exploring different ways of understanding water. You can watch the full 10-minute talk and other presentations at elkrivercollaborative.ca.