NWT Community Perspective on Wastewater Treatment Lagoon Performance Through an Examination of Ecosystem Parameters

Project keywords:

Wastewater, community monitoring, health, climate change

Name of project lead: Smith, Decker, Slawson, Stevens 

Project team/partners: For each collaborator please specify: Team member name, role, organization and contact information
In development, over the past two years, Laurier researchers have engaged with the following partners exploring wastewater issues and potential research questions: Sambaa K’e Dene Band (Trout Lake), Deninu Kue First Nation (Fort Resolution), Hamlet of Fort Resolution, NWT Métis Nation, Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation, Hamlet of Behchoko, GNWT Environment and Natural Resources, Northwest Territories Association of Communities, GNWT Health and Social Services, GNWT, Municipal and Community Affairs, Ecology North, Wek’eezhi Land and Water Board, Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board.

A 2011 application to Health Canada’s Climate Change Adaptation Program was not successful. On- going work seeks to identify priority questions to which Laurier can contribute.

Status: In development / Pending funding / In Progress / Completed In development.

Location: TBD – NWT

Year and month project started: TBD

Anticipated completion year of project? TBD

Executive year of project (example, year 1 or 2 or 3…) n/a

Brief project description: (objectives and rationale)
This project is in development stage. Laurier researchers are seeking to collaborate with communities and GNWT departments to identify what, if any research questions pertaining to wastewater management should be prioritized. Questions may include:

How effective are the lagoons and wetlands currently at treating sewage?

What system impacts might be anticipated with potential changes in temperature and 
surrounding hydrology imposed by alterations in climatic patterns?

What recommendations can be made to communities, regulators and other decision-makers 
about best practice in sewage lagoon operations and maintenance in NWT?

How may these recommendations be implemented or facilitated by the community members 

Will potential alterations in lagoon performance have implications for community health?

Communities throughout the Northwest Territories are experiencing some of the most pronounced climate warming on earth. Permafrost thaw, particularly in NWT’s southern regions where discontinuous permafrost is most vulnerable to degradation with small temperature increases, results in dramatic corresponding changes in hydrology. The resulting changes to water flows can greatly impact northern infrastructure and can present a great deal of uncertainty to northern communities.

Several NWT community governments have voiced questions about the current and future functioning of their wastewater lagoons and systems. Through compliance with water license monitoring requirements, communities can, over time, compile water quality data from sites through the effluent pathway of the lagoon and associated wetlands. For some communities, this data has only recently been collected or has not yet been collected to date. The CCME Northern Working group has conducted reconnaissance sampling on most NWT lagoons during 1 season and is studying a number of lagoons in more detail including intra and inter season comparisons. It is anticipated that this study, with a focus on microbiology, will contribute substantially to the understanding of northern wastewater treatment systems.

A number of WLU researchers have expertise that may contribute to address these questions employing the following approaches:

1)  Microbiology: Microbial samples can be analyzed using both metabolic and DNA fingerprinting techniques to identify and characterize the microbial community as well as quantify specific organisms of interest as a performance assessment parameter through the treatment pathway.

2)  Vegetation analysis: Many processes in wastewater treatment require specific substrate conditions. In treatment wetlands, plants modify substrate conditions though oxygenation, decomposition and supporting microbial communities that in turn may further modify substrate conditions or contribute directly to wastewater treatment processes. Understanding the role of plants in wastewater treatment can therefore lead to enhanced treatment approaches and increase treatment efficiency. Plant communities in NWT Treatment lagoons and receiving streams will be documented, rhizosphere characteristics quantified (root length, root density mycorrhizal associations) and correlated with water quality parameters.

3)  The social science work could consist of information gathering through key informant interviews and focus groups, as well as compilation of published secondary data, for an assessment of 1) the provision of safe water and sewage disposal in each community; 2) the health care delivery system and training of community-based health providers in place at present; 3) the understanding from community members of the what constitutes health associated risk of waterborne disease; 4) understanding from community members of the changing spatial patterns, seasonality, and interannual variations of infectious diseases in general in order to establish base-lines for climate change scenarios.

Fluorescence analysis: waste water has specific signature fluorphores that can be used to trace wastewater contamination into surface or ground water. These fluorescent molecules originate from the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan. These fluorophores can easily be measured in water samples without any special sample treatment using a technique called total luminescence spectroscopy. These measurements are useful for rapid screening on possible wastewater contamination. If amino-acid fluorescence is detected wastewater contamination is a possibility and would warrant further investigation by more detailed measurement techniques.

Significance of the results (rationale): / project linkages

What are the key contributions to science/our knowledge base of northern environments

Depending on how the project is ultimately developed, it could address the following issues:


To address current community concerns about the efficacy of sewage lagoon treatment in their 
communities. Metabolic and DNA fingerprinting of microbial communities in addition to plant performance parameters will contribute to assessing lagoon and wetland treatment efficacy with a higher certainty than what is provided through water license monitoring requirements.

To identify and quantify pathogenic bacteria and corresponding load reductions throughout NWT sewage lagoons and treatment wetlands

To identify and document plant communities in NWT sewage lagoons and wetlands and to 
investigate correlations between plant-types, microbial communities and waste water treatment 

To provide communities with best-practice advice in relation to lagoon design, operations and 

To identify and assess potential health risks that may be implicated in alterations to water quality 
associated with climate change impacts on the hydrology surrounding sewage lagoons and treatment wetlands and any associated impacts on treatment efficacy. 

To establish a baseline understanding of the microbial populations and plant interactions present in NWT sewage lagoons and treatment wetlands in order to establish the robustness of these systems over longer time periods and ultimately monitor change over time in response to a warming climate. Northern regions are considered sentinels for the effects of CC on infectious diseases in general and waterborne pathogens in particular. Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) routinely inspect, sample and assess community water systems. However, source- identified health risk is not clear for entire watersheds and will be facilitated by microbial source tracking.
Once the identification of and risk for pathogen contamination from the lagoons and watersheds has been assessed, links can be made to community-based epidemiological studies that clarify transmission pathways and relative risk of exposure for various scenarios.
Set the stage for broader epidemiological studies if deemed necessary that will more accurately assess any tangible health risk to the community as a result of fluctuating treatment conditions and confirm the robustness and resilience of the treatment system in this regard.

What is the relevance to decision-makers?

It is anticipated that results of the study will inform decision-making at many levels with relation to wastewater lagoons. The results will provide information that regulators can use in setting terms of community water licenses. Results will also offer best-practice advice to communities for current and future decisions with regards to design, construction and operation and maintenance of community wastewater lagoons.

Which decision-makers will likely be impacted by / interested in results?

Community governments, land and water boards, GNWT Health and Social Services

What is the relevance to communities?

The project is being developed directly from questions and concerns strongly voiced by collaborating communities. Through a collaborative and engaged approach that provides additional data about community wastewater lagoons, and by ensuring the project is developed with an emphasis on community participation and capacity building, it is anticipated that the project will help community governments to plan their wastewater treatment facilities and will build community confidence about the infrastructure.

What are the project milestones? (including beginning date and anticipated end-date)

This project is in development stage. The researchers intend to initiate further communications with GNWT and federal departments of the CCME Northern Working Group, which has been established to make recommendations for northern specific wastewater effluent guidelines and the scientists working with Environment Canada on these investigations. Further communications with community members will also help to elucidate their questions and the most appropriate methodologies to address these. Researchers are also looking for appropriate funding sources. 

Key deliverables and reporting: Link to needs of NWT TBD


Engagement, training and capacity building

Laurier researchers are investigating this topic in direct response to concerns raised by residents and leaders of small NWT communities as well as issues raised by regulators and GNWT departments. The project will be developed only in close collaboration with communities and with the territorial government. A central component to any project that is submitted for funding will be community participation so that the project directly contributes to all participants’ strengthened understanding of NWT wastewater lagoon treatment processes, monitoring requirements and pathogen transmission risks.

Links to WSIPlan and NWT Science Agenda

Water Stewardship Strategy Keys to Success

Develop community capacity to strengthen community involvement in water stewardship activities, including education, training, and research and monitoring programs.
2.2A Explore, develop and implement opportunities for community-based research and monitoring programs.

Work with partners on community source water protection.
3.1C Implement the Canada-wide Strategy (CWS) for Municipal Waste Water Effluent (MWWE) in the NWT.
3.3A Engage communities and other water partners to identify issues relating to water license applications and compliance and work to address these issues.

 Key project tasks for next year (work plan pieces – research)

Identify potential funding mechanisms and refine approach.

Key project tasks for next year (work plan pieces – engagement, training and capacity building)

Identify potential funding mechanisms and refine approach.

Published Papers n/a