WINNIPEG – A water warning was lifted for Winnipeg’s 700,000 residents Thursday, although officials couldn’t say why tests for E. coli came back positive in the first place.
“The province’s medical officer of health has notified us that they’ve lifted the precautionary boil-water advisory for the city of Winnipeg,” Mayor Brian Bowman said before taking a big sip of tap water in front of cameras.
“Testing has occurred over the last two days and, in both cases, we’ve gotten a clean bill of health.”
The advisory was issued Tuesday after routine testing found coliform and E. coli at extremely low levels in six of 39 water samples. Subsequent tests the next day came back clean, but the city had to re-test before the ban could be lifted.
A second batch of samples met all health and safety guidelines, Bowman said.
There were no reports of anyone who became ill as a result of drinking or using tap water, he added.
Officials suspected from the beginning that the initial test results were a “false positive,” but the city had no choice but to issue the advisory, Bowman said.
“The regulation is from the province,” he said. “I’d like to thank all Winnipeggers for their patience over the last two days.”
Efforts now turn to figuring out what triggered the positive results, said Diane Sacher, the city’s waste and water director.
“We do not know what has led to this,” she said. “Now that we’ve got the all-clear … we’re going to be shifting our focus to find out what happened, why we did have those positive test results.
“That’s obviously going to be a high priority for us now.”
Geoff Patton, manager of engineering services for the water and waste department, said there are only two ways the tests could have come back with a false positive.
“The presence of coliforms in test results can really only occur either through a sampling procedure error or through a testing error that’s occurred,” he said. “That will be part of the investigation.”
During the advisory, businesses and residents were told that tap water was safe for bathing and laundry, but were advised to boil it for at least a minute before drinking it.
Most coffee shops and restaurants were open, although some menu items were not available. Schools were also open, but some warned students to bring bottled water because the water fountains were closed. It was business as usual at city pools.
Hospitals saw no sign of a spike in illness, and surgeries and other services went on as usual.
Some took the opportunity to highlight the ongoing struggles of an aboriginal community that lives near Winnipeg’s supply of drinking water.
The site of the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation on the Ontario-Manitoba boundary was flooded and essentially made into an island so Winnipeg could tap the lake’s water via an aqueduct. The community has lived under a boil-water advisory for 17 years and has also urged construction of an all-weather road.
On Thursday, Chuck Wright and a few others congregated in downtown Winnipeg to hand out water bottles plastered with the label “Boil Water Advisory Day Count — Winnipeg: 1.5, Shoal Lake 40: 6,205+” to raise awareness about the reserve.
“While clean drinking water is still … in the public mind, we wanted to come out and remind Winnipeggers of this disparity,” Wright said. “We hope … people will contemplate more where their water comes from and what our responsibility is through our relationship to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation.”
Wright said he hoped the E. coli scare would create empathy for the many First Nations that have been under boil-water “for so many years, sometimes decades.”