Community of Anzac says their water issues are an “An Emergency Situation”

by Rebekah Benoit

For nearly a week, Nicole Funk has been watching the water in her basement water tank dropping with a sense of trepidation. Unlike Fort McMurray, which offers city water and sewer services to residents, the hamlet of Anzac, along with the neighbouring community of Gregoire Lake Estates, relies on trucked-in water stored in tanks for everything from drinking and bathing to watering their lawns. And for more than a week, the water tanks in Anzac have been slowly running dry, as residents wait and watch in vain for their regular water delivery trucks.

Like many residents in the community, Funk has been through this before. Since the RMWB announced that it would be taking over delivery of water, severing its contract with Clearwater Hauling, Funk says she and her neighbours have been experiencing lengthening delays in water delivery.

“We’ve noticed a delay of water delivery over the last few weeks, so I keep probably 20 milk jugs full of water in my basement. We’ve been through this before,” Funk says. In addition to water delivery issues, the community also suffers from frequent power outages, which leave residents without water, heat and electricity for hours at a time.

When her regularly-scheduled water delivery day of Wednesday, February 18, came and went without water being delivered, Funk was concerned, but not panicked. She flagged down a water delivery truck the following day as it rumbled past her home on Hopegood Drive and asked the driver why the delivery had been delayed.

“I just wanted to know what was going on – had our delivery days been switched, or what?” she recalls. “He told me that they were running a day behind, but that I’d have water delivered on Sunday. I thought okay, I can stretch it – I just won’t do that extra load of laundry.”

On Saturday, Funk’s water tank ran dry. As luck would have it, one of her three children also came down with the flu. As she stockpiled dirty laundry, she crossed her fingers that the promised water delivery would arrive the next day.

Four more days have passed since Funk’s promised water delivery date, and the family of five is still without water.  The emergency stash of milk jugs in the basement has long since run dry.

“We can’t wash our hands, we can’t do laundry, we can’t do anything. My daughter has the flu, she’s vomited on everything she owns, and I can’t even clean her favourite blankie. Try telling a four-year old that,” Funk says, her frustration evident in her voice. “This is definitely unhygienic. We have to use our Culligan water dispenser to wash our hands right now. It’s a serious problem.”

As more and more residents are running out of water, the community is becoming frustrated at the lack of communication, both from Clearwater Hauling and from the RMWB. “There hasn’t been one phone call,” says Funk.

The only communication has happened through the Anzac community Facebook page, where neighbours have been commiserating with each other and trying to determine why the system has failed and what they can do about it.

According to Clearwater Hauling’s posts on the Anzac Facebook page, the delay has been caused by the sudden departure of several employees, combined with mechanical problems in the delivery trucks. But despite repeated assurances that water would be delivered imminently, the community’s tanks remain dry.

When residents call the company to find out what’s going on, they’re greeted with instructions to leave a message, followed by an announcement declaring the company’s voicemail box is full.

“[Clearwater’s] story has changed so many times, and there’s no one to call. No one ever answers the phone,” Funk says. She tried contacting the RMWB but says, despite the promises that the municipality was aware of the situation and working on it, nothing has been done.

Water trucks did begin delivery on Tuesday night, but were shut down when a resident in Anzac, apparently unaware of the water crisis, called to complain that the delivery trucks were in violation of the local noise bylaw.

“There have been so many miscommunications, half-answers and outright lies,” Funk says. “I’ve made myself literally sick over this. I’m worried, I’m frustrated. This needs to be handled today.”

Finally, Funk took matters into her own hands. She contacted two water companies, Whitmoor Vac Services and Forthryte Services, in Fort McMurray and explained what was happening in Anzac. Both, she says, offered to come out and help right away, leaving her wondering why the RMWB didn’t contact these companies immediately when they realized the extent of the problem.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing, but I managed to get [Whitmoor Vac Services] to agree to come help,” Funk says disgustedly. “They said that no one had approached them; they had no idea there was a problem.”

Jerry Stacey, a utility technician with RMWB Underground Services, says the municipality only became aware of the situation on Tuesday, but is now working hard to restore water services to the hamlet.

“We’ve now got two trucks supplying water, and we’ll be working 24-hours a day. According to Clearwater [Hauling], everybody should have water by tomorrow morning,” Stacey says, adding that for those residents who have basement tanks, they will need to be at home in order to receive water, to prevent possibly basement flooding due to overfilling of tanks.

“It was yesterday when we got on board – that’s when we found out about it,” he adds, explaining that a shortage of water delivery companies has made it difficult to get help. “We’ve taken the action needed to get water going. It’s becoming very difficult to find water truck drivers to supply water out there. Everybody is so tied up with camps and everything else.”

“We’re really sorry it had to come to this, and we’re doing everything we can to relieve the pain,” he says.

To the community members of Anzac, including Willow Lake Community Association president Darryl Woitkiw, the apology comes as cold comfort.

“If this had happened in the city, the city would have water trucks out, they would have temporary tanks set up, whatever it took to make sure every household in Fort McMurray had water. To my mind, it’s a slap in the face, saying that because we’re rural, we’re not as important,” he says.

Woytkiw says the community was hopeful when the RMWB announced it would be taking over water delivery, promising better service and reliability. “We were told that if we ran short on water, we could just call and they would bring us water. They also told us that they’d have a monitoring system so they’d be able to tell how much water each household had,” Woytkiw recalls.

The municipality has promised to bring in water and sewer to the community but to date, only a small percentage of Anzac has access to the piped-in water line. The RMWB is still trying to secure funding for the remainder of the project, and estimates that water and sewer services will not be available for at least two years in Gregoire Lake Estates, and even longer for Anzac.

Water and sewer isn’t the only service the hamlet is lacking. The community still relies on a small volunteer fire department to provide fire services, which means that members, most of whom work at oilsands sites during the day, must travel home from site before they can respond to a fire emergency.

Funk says the community has become accustomed to relying on each other for emergency services, rather than the municipality which, she says, happily take their tax dollars but provide little in return in terms of basic services.

“[The RMWB] never seems to have any kind of contingency plan for emergencies,” Funk says. “Members of the community band together to solve all these problems.”

Funk recalls just such a situation in 2013, when a bridge on Highway 881 washed out, leaving residents stranded in the community and those who were in Fort McMurray for work unable to get home.

“The community got together and those people who had boats were bringing people across the lake so they could get home,” Funk recalls.

“It’s like we’re in a bubble out here. We seem to be our own contingency plan,” she says. “It needs to be realized that this is a problem.”

Woytkiw echoes Funk’s frustration. “Outlying communities pay the same taxes – we should be entitled to the same services as urban areas. This is totally unacceptable,” he says. “It definitely has the mood of the people up in arms. Some people are saying we need to separate from the municipality and in reality, in some circumstances, we’d probably be better off.”

He adds that the community isn’t asking for luxuries, like a golf course or a new arena. “We’re talking about basic services here, water and sewer – you’ve got to have those,” he says “They are not a luxury.”