Extreme weather of late should be a wake-up call to governments to be better prepared to protect water systems from contamination, says the head of the Conservation Council.
"With these extreme rains, and in the winter, ice storms, we have to almost always think — not just about the weather — but what that does to our river and our drinking-water systems," Lois Corbett, the executive director of the group, told Information Morning Fredericton on Thursday.
Her comments came after sewage from a wastewater plant leaked into the Fish River in Fort Kent, Maine, during torrential rain and may have affected water quality in the St. John River above Edmundston. The treatment plant is just across the river from Clair, N.B.
Corbett said she was aware through social media of residents' concerns about the effect of the discharge on the water downriver, and felt New Brunswick could have responded more quickly with information for the public.
"We live in a day and age with instant communication," she said.
The Aroostook Emergency Management Agency in Maine issued a public safety announcement and advised the New Brunswick government on Tuesday, but the provincial Department of Health didn't say anything to the public about the leak until Wednesday.
The Health Department said it was posting signs warning beachgoers in Saint-Hilaire and advised people in Baker Brook to be careful about drinking water. The short-term risk to the river below Edmundston was low, the department said.
Don't want to alarm people
Corbett also said she felt authorities on both sides of the border acted as best they could, and it's important not to alarm the public unnecessarily.
But the incident underlines a need during severe weather to keep concerns about water at the forefront and communicate well with the public, she said.
"All over the world we're suffering through extreme heat waves, raging forest fires, blue-green algae appearing in, not just in New Brunswick river systems but in northern Scandinavian lakes . … climate change has kind of sent us a wake-up call.'
"'Guys, we got to think about everything we do, and how we protect our drinking water, and the St. John River, with a new hat on, called the climate-change readiness hat."
She suggested the province prepare a watch page for severe weather that might affect sewage and wastewater plants. The Environment Department should say on its website the steps it takes to protect public health and water systems during severe storms, she said.
An alert system
Corbett also suggested that the government come up with an alert system for when wastewater spills happen.
"We live in an day and age with instant communication," she said. "[We have to] figure out what the right response is and communicate it out."
Maine and the Department of Health both took samples of the water after the spill this week.
The wastewater that spilled into the river was partially chlorinated. Results from the water samples were expected Thursday night, and Maine officials thought they'd probably show the water was OK now.