Rural residents in Niagara-on-the-Lake are fed up with their water service.
Juan Neumann, a grape grower who lives on East and West Line, wants the town to extend a municipal water line down his road to serve the many residents who live there.
After going door-to-door collecting signatures in support of a water line, he estimates the proposed project has 98 per cent support from residents on the rural road.
“We believe we have the right to clean, potable water like everybody else in this country,” Neumann said.
While people in the urban areas of town get their water through a service line connected to their homes, some rural residents like Neumann get their water from a well, and the quality is not the same.
While the town treats all the water running through its lines for harmful contaminants, residents like Neumann have to test, treat and filter their water themselves.
“We’ve lived here for 52 years, and we feel like we’ve been discriminated against,” Neumann said.
The 71-year-old farmer said he’s been watching his well water deteriorate for 30 years and plans to make it his mission to get a rural water line installed.
Neumann’s petition, which town staff are currently reviewing, was raised by Coun. Erwin Wiens at a council meeting on May 23.
After discussing the issues caused by the lack of water service to the area, council asked staff to look into potential solutions to the problem.
In a follow-up with the town, spokesperson Marah Minor said water line extensions outside the urban boundary, like the one proposed, are “not permitted” except in “special circumstances,” such as when addressing health issues.
“Upon initial review, (the water line) does not appear to be supported under the current planning policies,” she added.
Coun. Erwin Wiens explains there’s an assumption that where water lines get built, developments follow.
“That’s not true,” Wiens said. “Water is water, and that’s what we need.”
“Development is a zoning issue,” he added, and the zoning on East and West Line does not permit anything other than agricultural use.
Neumann explained it as such: “We are locked into the Greenbelt. And whether we like it or not, we’re here to stay.”
In the meantime, he says the water is so poor it has turned his taps, toilets, pipes and other fixtures brown.
And his neighbour Scott MacSween, a tender fruit grower, says the smell is enough to turn your stomach.
“It just smells like rotten eggs,” he said.
It gets its smell from the high amount of sulphur in the aquifer, MacSween added.
Neumann isn’t sure what else could be in the water, but he worries industrial runoff from now-closed chemical factories in Niagara Falls may have contaminated the aquifers as far north as rural NOTL.
He specifically mentioned the old Cyanamid factory near the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls, which closed in 1992.
A 2004 report by Golder and Associates said that the plant actively polluted the Chippawa Power Canal south of St. Davids which flows into the Niagara River.
Erika Navarro, a spokesperson for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, said there is “no connection” between the canal and aquifer, meaning any contaminants in the power canal would not be transferred to the water at the bottom of Neumann’s well.
And Aecom conducted a risk assessment of the property in 2010 and concluded that the risk of the contaminants flowing from the old factory site to the Niagara River via groundwater was extremely low.
Furthermore, The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority said in a 2023 water quality report that the major contaminants in the aquifers were not from industrial run-off, but from agricultural waste.
The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority monitors drinking water across the region and consistently gives the health of NOTL’s aquifers Bs for good and Fs for poor.
Navarro said the group only monitors one well in Niagara-on-the-Lake and its test results cannot apply to the whole area because water quality varies across the aquifer.
That said, tests on this well water, viewable at the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks’ website, show that amounts for dangerous chemicals like lead and arsenic are in decline and have been.
When wells are on private property like Neumann’s, it falls to the owner to test them for drinkability.
The region offers water quality testing kits to well owners for free and recommends owners test their well water seasonally.
Neumann feels these tests are inadequate though, saying they are used to test for E. coli, but not for dangerous chemicals like arsenic or lead.
“There’s ways to filter it and clean it up. But the cost is horrendous,” he added.
He estimates that he spends about $1,000 a year filtering the well water and still does not feel comfortable drinking it.
MacSween is not so concerned about industrial waste.
The bigger issue, he says, is the headache of having to truck in municipal water to wash all his fruit during harvest season.
Rather than washing it in well water, he buys municipal water by the truckload and has it shipped to his properties.
“Our wells are very poor on our farms,” MacSween said, pointing out that he couldn’t get sufficient water pressure from the well to wash his fruit efficiently.
He suggested the water pressure issues might be from the number of residents using the aquifer.
For seven weeks during harvest season, MacSween said, the farm goes through about 6,000 litres of water a day.
His water is delivered by Your Water Company, a water delivery service in the Niagara Region.
He estimates it costs at least $120 per delivery, and in the busy season, he receives two 3,000-gallon shipments a day.
He says the first 3,000 gallons are just for washing the fruit, and the rest is to provide his team of 50 migrant workers with drinking water.
MacSween often worries about what could happen if one of the delivery trucks breaks down.
“I haven’t had the problem but it’s always in the back of my mind,” he said.
Wiens pointed out that it’s bad for the environment to have multiple trucks on the road delivering water as often as they are.
And while the water shipped to his farms is clean, MacSween said he still needs to test it, in case it becomes contaminated while sitting in the transport trucks or in the underground tanks on his property.
For MacSween, he said, “It’s just one more thing that we have to contend with.”