• Stephanie Bacsu

The City of Melfort

1921 Children's Day Parade
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Executive Summary

This research project examines what factors contributed to Melfort’s successful response to an unexpected drinking water emergency. On July 21, 2016, the Husky Energy pipeline ruptured due to riverbank destabilization near Maidstone, Saskatchewan (Saskatchewan Cities’ Water, 2016). The pipeline rupture released nearly 225, 000 liters of crude oil into the North Saskatchewan River (Saskatchewan River Water, 2016). One single litre of oil is capable of contaminating up to 2 million litres of water so the destructive impact from the oil spill was intense (Government of Saskatchewan, 2015). Communities that relied on the North Saskatchewan River as their source water, including the City of Melfort, had to close their water intake systems, and find an alternative water source; however, unlike many neighbouring communities Melfort was able to navigate this challenge with little disruption in water services (Lang, 2019). The research method included a literature review, and a multiple methods qualitative approach that focused on examining the community-based solutions used by Melfort. The multiple-methods approach used a process of expert elicitation, interviews with key individuals in Melfort’s water management, and modified Delphi interactions to gather additional information on the community’s reaction and analyze findings (Bolger & Wright, 2017).

The key factors that contributed to Melfort’s resilience and adaptation to the oil spill were the early recognition of the problem; that is, the City of Melfort’s primary water source was contaminated by the release of oil into the North Saskatchewan River. From the outset, the City of Melfort and SaskWater worked closely together during the contamination event. The second factor was that the City and SaskWater promoted proactive approaches by engaging individuals in water management to prepare alternative source plans. In addition, Melfort was fortunate to have knowledgeable individuals who used their critical knowledge, specialized experience, and resourceful relationships to champion their way through the City’s water challenges. The City of Melfort did not declare a state of emergency during the Husky oil spill; however, the community used portions of the emergency management plans to provide guidance for addressing the oil spill or providing alternate source of water. The transparency of the managers, and effective communication systems helped citizens stay up to date with the Precautionary Drinking Water Advisory (PDWA). They were quickly informed of additional free water being trucked into the community. A final factor that helped Melfort succeed was the climate. The stable climate ensured that the reservoir was full of water, whereas, if there were years of prolonged drought the water quantity and quality would have degraded beyond the point of treatment.


The purpose of this study is to identify the key factors which led to Melfort’s adaptive water management of the the 2016 Husky Energy oil spill that contaminated the City’s source water, the North Saskatchewan River. Many communities rely on the North Saskatchewan river (Map 1), as a source of drinking water. Alternate source plans, critical knowledge and effective use of resources were some of the contributing factors to Melfort’s success.

Map 1- Melfort and the North Saskatewan River

Some key concepts that the paper focused on was knowledge, vulnerability, resiliency, and adaptive management in relation to water resource management. While there are many different kinds of knowledge that exist in society; however, in this research report, knowledge referred to is knowledge that embeds important information, experience, and relationships that are practical to completing a task. Government officials /actors (Alawi, 2007). The concept of vulnerability focused on communities’ drinking water, and the possible source water liabilities that may expose residents to potential hazards. Adaptive Management refers to incremental change over time in water resource management to overcome vulnerability. Resiliency referred to identify vulnerabilities, in order to improve a community’s capacities and mitigate risk related to uncertainty.


Map 2-Location of Melfort
Map 2-Location of Melfort

Known as the “City of Northern Lights”, Melfort is situated approximately 178 km northeast of Saskatoon, or 95 km southeast of Prince Albert. It is the gateway to Northeast Saskatchewan at the intersections of Provincial Highway 3, 6, and 41 (Map 2). This Prairiecommunity is located in the Carrot River Valley Watershed in the boreal transition ecoregion (Padbury et al., 1998). (Map 3). Melfort has a semi-arid climate receiving an average of 291 mm of annual rainfall, and an average 106 cm annual snowfall (Environment Canada, 2019). Map 3- Location of Melfort in Carrot River Watershed

Similar to much of the prairies, the remnants of glacial activities left the topography of the region riddled with numerous potholes and wetlands (Myrow, 2018). The fertile black loam soil proved advantageous for dryland agriculture, and attracted European settlers to the region to establish the prairie community (City of Melfort, 2019). Today the land-use surrounding Melfort remains dominated by dryland agriculture; however, Melfort has a strong diversified economy. The current population of Melfort is approximately 5,992 people (Statistics Canada, 2017). The population of Melfort has not changed much between 2001-2016 from 5589 to 5992 people.

The median household income is approximately $62,000. The labor force in Melfort dominated by occupations in sales and services, the trades and transport sector, and business and finance division (Statistics Canada, 2017). Statistics Canada (2017) data demonstrated the City had grown at an annual average rate of 1.49%, from 2011 to 2016. The current daily water consumption for the City of Melfort is around 1500 cubic meters daily, which is 1.5 million litres a day of total community water use in summer (Lang, 2019).

Melfort’s water treatment plant was built in 1958 (SaskWater, 2019). While there were additional upgrades in 1972, the water treatment plant was never equipped to treat for hydrocarbons. Currently each level of government is to contribute up to $27,370,034 for the eight infrastructure projects through the New Building Canada Fund in 2019. Any remaining costs are to be covered by the funding recipients. Among the projects being funded are an upgrade of the water treatment plant in Melfort (Regina/980 CJME, 2019). The corporation also completed the design work for an $8.47 million upgrade to the City of Melfort’s regional water treatment plant (Saskatchewan Party Caucus, 2020). From 1958 to 1993, Melfort’s primary water source was the Melfort Creek, with the Star City Reservoir also being drawn by the City up until 1993 as an alternate source of water. Melfort has always had an alternative water supply. The Star City Reservoir was created by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), which was established in 1935 by the Federal government as a branch of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (Gilson, 2013). The PFRA was developed during a period of drought as a way of helping promote stewardship and sustainable development in the Prairie Provinces in terms of water use, land use, soil preservation, and agricultural practices (Gilson, 2013). Although the PFRA was disbanded in 2010, during its operations the organization established a number of water focused projects including pipelines, irrigation district agreements, dugouts, wells, dams, and reservoirs (Diaz, Hulbert, & Warren, 2016).

In 1993, Melfort sold their water treatment plant to SaskWater which is the province’s commercial Crown water utility (SaskWater, 2017). Following the purchase of the water plant, SaskWater created the Codette Lake Water Supply System (CLWSS) which was a regional water supply network that provided water to numerous communities out of the North Saskatchewan River (SaskWater, 2017) (Map 3).

Regional water supply systems have been described as most cost-effective and sustainable way to meet the water needs of multiple consumers (SaskWater, 2019).

In order to ensure that the regional water supply system could be constructed, the water treatment plant underwent upgrades which included disconnecting the pipeline from Melfort Creek into the water treatment plant, while keeping the PFRA Star City reservoir pipeline as part of the plant’s infrastructure. With the successful transformation of the water treatment plant, SaskWater’s was able to provide potable water services to roughly 9000 peopleincluding individuals from Melfort, Star City, Weldon, Kinistino, Beatty, and 2 rural pipelines. SaskWater uses their Codette Lake Pump Statio to provide water for the Melfort area pipeline network which has an intake that is nearly 17’ below the North Saskatchewan River’s surface. The City of Melfort purchases high-quality potable water from the SaskWater Codette Lake regional water supply system (Melfort-Utilites, 2020).

SaskWater and city of Melfort have had a successful partnership for a number of years and the City of Melfort renewed their contract with SaskWater in 2019. SaskWater currently uses the City of Melfort’s reservoirs as the commercial supplier’s storage reservoirs, so maintaining a good relationship has remained a priority. As of 2019, SaskWater has leased additional land from the City of Melfort to help the water treatment plant undergo upgrades (how big is this land and where it is located). The $8.5 million upgrades will include backup power sources, and water treatment upgrades (SaskWater, 2019).

Map 3-Codette Lake Pump Station Location Source- Adapted from Portable Water Supply-SaskWater, 2019. Copyright by SaskWater 2020. (SaskWater, 2019).

On July 21, 2016 when the Husky Energy (Husky, 2020) pipeline ruptured and spilled heavy crude oil into the North Saskatchewan River, it became a huge cause of concern people in water management from the City and SaskWater. About 225,000 litres of diluted heavy oil spilled from Husky’s pipeline near Maidstone in west-central Saskatchewan and the company said about 40 per cent made it into the river (CTV News, 2019). Husky Energy has been fined $3.8 million for the pipeline leak that forced the cities of North Battleford, Prince Albert and Melfort to shut off their water intakes for almost two months (CTV News, 2019). The company was facing ten charges, one provincially and nine federally. Unofficial meetings began on July 24, between City of Melfort and SaskWater to engage in proactive measures to find an alternative water supply source. But what about cleaning the oil spill. The following official meeting, on July 25, 2016 included stakeholders from the City of Melfort, SaskWater, Water Security Agency, the health region, and Husky Energy to discuss pertinent issues relating to contamination and alternative sources of water supply. The contamination event lasted for nearly 2 months and 57 days. During that time the City of Melfort and SaskWater relied on the Star City Reservoir as their alternative water source water. Initially there were concerns about the difficulty in treating the water from the reservoir due to a high amount of organic matter. Trihalomethanes (THMs) are produced when water high in organic material is treated with a chlorine disinfectant, and are a dangerous carcinogen which have been linked to cancer (Health Canada, 2009). As a cautionary measure, a PDWA was issued to communities of the CLWSS pipeline; fortunately, SaskWater was successful in treating the water with high amounts of potassium permanganate and the PDWA was soon rescinded (Mansuy, 2016). Potassium permanganate is an oxidant pre-treatment used to reduce the concentration of organics in water supplies.

Husky Energy, that was fined $3.8 million for a pipeline leak (CTV News, 2019) took full responsibility for the incident and remunerated the community’s total costs. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999) is an important part of Canada’s federal environmental legislation aimed at preventing pollution and protecting the environment and human health (Government of Canada, 2017). Re-uptake from CLWSS began on September 16, 2016 at the North Saskatchewan River, and alleviated Melfort’s water contamination concerns.

Chronological narrative:

⁜ Thursday, July 21, 2016

⁜ Pipeline rupture is noticed and heavy crude oil contaminated the North Saskatchewan River

⁜ Users of the CLWSS are notified to make sure their water storage capacities are full

⁜ Saturday, July 23, 2016

⁜ WSA notifies SaskWater explaining an alternative water supply may be needed due to the water column becoming contaminated from the diluted crude sinking to the riverbed

⁜ Sunday, July 24, 2016

⁜ Melfort’s Director of Works and Utilities is notified that the contamination will impact Melfort’s water supply

⁜ Unofficial meeting of partners in water management to take proactive measures

⁜ SaskWater starts flushing the old pipeline of the PFRA Star City Reservoir

⁜ Monday, July 25, 2016

⁜ Official meeting of individuals involved in water resource management is held at Melfort city hall, and discuss next steps in using alternative water source

⁜ Tuesday, July 26, 2016

⁜ Precautionary Drinking Water Advisory (PDWA) is issued at 12:01 am prior to switching water source to alternative PFRA reservoir

⁜ Thursday, July 28, 2016

⁜ PDWA is rescinded because water treatment is no longer a concern

⁜ Friday, September 16, 2016

⁜ SaskWater is permitted to reuptake water from the North Saskatchewan River

⁜ Communities are the CLWSS are switched from the alternative water supply back to the North Saskatchewan River

⁜ Water worries are over for the City of Melfort


The findings begin by reviewing the stakeholders impacted by the water contamination event due to the Husky pipeline rupture; followed by, the identification of the thematically assembled factors which contributed to Melfort’s success in addressing the problems of water contamination. The themes included the critical community communication tools used, key people involved, the key knowledge used, infrastructural advantages, and existing plans. Finally, the findings conclude with additional unexpected findings that the interviewees felt were important to share to give a complete narrative of the Husky Oil Spill incidence.

Decision Making Process

The first informal meeting was organized by the Emergency Monitoring Organisation (Melfort Services, 2020), (EMO) coordinator, and held in Melfort City Hall on Sunday, July 24th. This initial meeting included a small group of people with the EMO Coordinator (Director of Works and Utilities), Manager of the SaskWater Water Treatment Plant, City Manager, and City Clerk to discuss what proactive measures could be taken to deal with a contaminated water source. When the individuals were notified that the spill would impact the water supply, it was decided to start flushing the old pipeline from their alternative water supply practice to deal with oil spills- check with Gordon Huang, the Star City Reservoir. Melfort was fortunate to have an alternative water supply, the Star City Reservoir, which was sufficient to supply the customers of the CLWSS.

The first formal meeting occurred on Monday, June 25th, and included the EMO, Water Security Agency’s Environment Project Officer (EPO), SaskWater, Kelsey Trail Health Authority, City Manager, elected officials and a Husky representative. The formal meeting was arranged to discuss concerns and assess the actions of water management to mitigate the impacts of the oil spill; in addition, city of Melfort was updated by officials that the entire water column had become contaminated, and confirmed an alternate water source would be necessary.

Keys to Melfort’s Success

The following section review the specific key factors which contributed to Melfort’s success. These themes were developed as the most significant contributing factors to Melfort’s success based on responses from the interviewees; in addition, these key factors would be most feasible options other communities to replicate to reduce their vulnerability.

Framing the Problem

The release of 225, 000 litres of crude oil into the North Saskatchewan River was an obvious problem for the City of Melfort and SaskWater staff (Government of Saskatchewan, 2016). In July 2016, about 40 per cent of 225,000 litres of diluted heavy oil from a pipeline went into the North Saskatchewan River, affecting water intakes in the cities of North Battleford, Prince Albert and Melfort.

After being formally notified that the contamination of the North Saskatchewan would impact the CLWSS, individuals in water management knew an alternative water source would be needed. Both the City of Melfort and SaskWater interviewees felt they had the support that they needed during the disruption, as Husky took full responsibility for the water contamination (Lang, 2019). Melfort was assured by representatives from Husky Energy that any of the cost procured during the disruption would be fully compensated by Husky. Often when stakeholders cannot agree on plan implementation it is due to budgetary reasons; however, this was not the case for Melfort (Wang, 2013).

Use of Knowledge in Decision Making

Knowledge is a valuable asset which can easily be overlooked as an advantageous resource to rely on during an emergency. In management the effective use of knowledge may determine if a project is successful or a failure. Melfort was fortunate to have knowledgeable individuals in water management who were able to navigate the city through the challenges of the water crisis. Knowledge means having the right information, experience, and relationships to get the job done (Al-Alawi et al., 2007).

Between these individuals they had acquired decades of information, experience, and fostered relationships in the community both professionally and personally. As residents of Melfort, and locals to the area, there is a strong understanding of the area. The first individual who had a specialized knowledge in potable water treatment was the Manager at the SaskWater facility. The second individual was the Director of Works and Utilities, and was essential to Melfort’s operations. Without the knowledge of these individuals the response to the oil spill would not have been as efficient or effective. The knowledge of critical infrastructure is another vital piece of information which helped the transition to the alternative water source. An important valve for water was marked, and located in a farmer’s field however, the farmer had plowed over the post, and this made it difficult to locate the valve during the water emergency.

Without the previous knowledge of the Director of Works and Utilities, it could have taken days to find such infrastructure and this would have added additional stress to the community. Since then the post has been GPS (Global Position System) located, and remains on file. This will function as a safety net if another similar incident would happen in the future; it is important that their critical knowledge can be transferred to other individuals in water management roles, if they are not available. For successful knowledge transfer communities need to have the relevant information critical to water management, catalogued in a format that is useful for other individuals who may or may not be in the same knowledge space to access and understand it. (Al-Alawi et al., 2007). Without the effective knowledge transfer, it may leave communities vulnerable to possible gaps in information when dealing with unforeseen circumstance in water management (Al-Alawi et al., 2007).

An Alternative Potable Water Supply

One of Melfort’s most important features in the City’s success when dealing with the oil spill was their redundancy in water supply. Having a secondary water supply is an advantage when there is a threat to the primary water source. Drilling into groundwater was not an option for Melfort due to the high mineralization content in the ground water, so Melfort has relied on surface water sources.

When the Melfort water treatment plant was built, in 1958, the City used water from the PFRA Star City reservoir as its primary potable water source. The Star City reservoir is sourced from Eagle Lake, approximately 35 kilometers south of Melfort (Lang, 2019). Following SaskWater’s purchase of the water treatment plant, the primary potable water source changed to the North Saskatchewan River; however, the pipeline connecting the star city reservoir remained intact as part of the water treatment plant infrastructure. Many communities are not as fortunate as Melfort for having an alternative water supply, and may have to rely on drinking water being trucked into the community.

“Some communities will not have any choice but to haul water. Probably a huge percentage”-MC2

Therefore, it is important for the community to know what alternative sources of water they have available to them prior to an incident.

Infrastructure Advantages

As mentioned above, Melfort’s previous water supply from the PFRA Star City reservoir remained piped and transported into the SaskWater water treatment plant, and thismade it the most feasible option as an alternative potable water source. Melfort used the water supply until 1993, during the transition by SaskWater. There are other bodies of water that could have been used by Melfort in theory as an alternative water source, but if it has not been part of the existing infrastructure it would be more difficult.

Another structural advantage was the intake for the CLWSS, which supplies Melfort. This is located 17 feet below the North Saskatchewan River’s surface (SaskWater, 2017). It was beneficial for the intake to be closer to river’s bottom when the contaminants which float on the water’s surface. Other communities with a shallower intake would inevitably be more likely to intake more hydrocarbons into their treatment facilities. However, the crude oil started to sink towards the riverbed as the crude began to dilute with the water; therefore, the entire water column became contaminated. On July 26, 2016 SaskWater closed their intake for the CLWSS at the North Saskatchewan River (SaskWater, 2017).

It is mandatory for all communities on the pipeline to maintain at least a 2-day storage of drinking water in case of such emergencies when using SaskWater as a potable water supplier (Water Pipeline Design, 2015). Melfort’s current storage reservoirs have been used by SaskWater as their reservoirs for other communities on the CLWSS. The SaskWater facility will be undergoing further upgrades starting in 2019 (SaskWater, 2019).

Having plans in place

In Saskatchewan, it is mandatory legislation for communities to have emergency management plans in place according to Section 9 of The Emergency Planning Act, 1989. The plan gives council the responsibility for the direction and control of a municipal emergency response in order to take action to implement the plan and to protect the property, health, safety and welfare of the public.

This legislation requires municipalities to:

• appoint a municipal planning committee;

• establish an Emergency Measures (Management) Organization (EMO);

• appoint an Emergency Coordinator; and

• prepare an emergency plan (Government of Saskatchewan, n.d)

This law helps communities foster a culture of safety be ensuring there is a safety committee in place, with a coordinator who can enable local emergency measures when necessary. The Canadian government shows plans for further improvement by creating the Emergency Management Strategy Canada which is aimed to make communities more resilient by 2030 (Public Safety Canada, 2019).

Melfort did not declare a state of emergency during the water contamination incident; however, components of their emergency plans were put in place which proved to be beneficial to have in place for initial planning. The EMO coordinator established meetings at Melfort City Hall, the primary Emergency Operations Center (EOC) location, which included some individuals from the emergency directory with official roles; therefore, taking proactive measures to catalogue what resources are available such as an emergency directory, EOC location, notification plans, mutual aid resources, and maps may all be beneficial in a water emergency. Having provisions in place saves time and may help mitigate damage to people, property, or the environment; therefore, it is important to have the coordination where people know their roles, and have practiced those roles.

“Make sure you’re diligent. Make sure you exhausted all your resources, make sure you have a plan and practice”-MC2

In Saskatchewan, it is still uncommon for communities to have source water protection plans. Source protection plans contain a series of locally developed policies that, as they are implemented, protect existing and future sources of municipal drinking water (Government of Ontario- Source Protection, 2012) that are exclusively focusing on drinking water protection, but consideration to drinking water can be incorporated into communities’ emergency management plans. An Emergency Response Plan (ERP), is a document that provides a step-by-step response to, and recovery from, incidents related to situations of emergency (Aboriginal affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2014). Melfort’s emergency plans did include some information on alternate potable water resources for the health authority, and while those measures were not enacted at least they were taken into account.

Strong Communication Networks

At the time of the incident Melfort used many forms of media to gain the public’s attention. Near City Hall there was a large electronic billboard that advertised information relating to the PDWA, and the free additional water being transported into the community. Melfort also has a radio station, so the City was able to broadcast short messages to the listeners in the local area regarding the water disruptions. Social media has changed the way people share information. Besides Melfort’s website, the City had a Facebook page where followers could find information on events, advisories, and other issues of concern. The majority of the people who were using social media at the time preferred Facebook, but Twitter was also used during the contamination event. While Melfort is a city, it is still a smaller community than many of Saskatchewan’s larger cities. Information spreads fast in small communities where there is a strong social network among friends and neighbours.

Perception in the Community

An important factor to consider in drinking water management is not only if the water quality is safe to drink, but also the public’s perception of health risks associated with their drinking water (Dupont et al., 2014). Risks associated with drinking water is related to public confidence in institutions, for regulators to make decisions, and manage potential hazards to health and well-being of communities (Dupont et al., 2014). These sentiments were supported by interviewees, who know that having the public’s trust is one of the most important determinants in successful water management.

As SaskWater is the commercial Crown water utility, it is able to provide wholesale potable water to communities who are capable of distributing water to its residents. SaskWater understands that supplying potable water does not simply mean that there is a sufficient amount of water safe for human consumption, but also that the water looks and smells pleasant to the consumer.

“Potable does mean appearance, color, taste, odour is all part of being potable not just safe. Safe is the most important, but all those other things enter into it”-MS1

The City of Melfort also took extra measures to ensure their residents felt supported during the water contamination. The potable water which was hauled into the community was situated or placed in containers in front of town hall, and was accessible to any resident in the area who needed extra potable water. The water was transported by well-maintained water trucks, whose appearance ensured confidence in consumers of provision of a safe water supply. Extra water remaining in the truck’s tank were emptied at the end of each day, and a fresh tank of water was brought in each of the following days.

“You can get the rusty trucks but then you get that negativity that comes with it. You have to put your best foot forward. First impressions make a difference.”-MC2

One would assume that transporting water by poorly maintained and corroded truck would influence the public’s perception of the water. The lack of trust in a safe water supply may begin discord in the community and decrease morale of its residents.

Relationships with neighbouring communities

Melfort was fortunate to be surrounded by communities that supported the City during the oil spill. The town of Tisdale, located 40 kilometers east of Melfort, had individuals who offered to bring in additional free water. Interviewees greatly appreciated this gesture made by Tisdale, and similar communities, for helping provide additional resources and support.

“Just bring your truck we will make it work and worry about the bill after. I’ll never forget those words. That means a lot.”-MC2

Climatic Influence