Skip to content

Historical issues breed distrust of Squamish Cheekye reserve's water service

Residents say water cuts out and is contaminated, but the Squamish Nation says tests indicate the water is safe and outages have not been severe.

For many of us, drinking water from the tap, taking a shower or flushing a toilet are things that are taken for granted.

 However, residents of the Cheekye, or Cheakamus 11, reserve say they are sometimes left wondering when and if those necessities are available to them.

 Those who live on that reserve say that their water infrastructure cuts out, leaving them dry and without any means to perform basic functions. When it does work, they say, it supplies them with water they don't trust.

 As a result, there has been a bottled water delivery service in place for the area that has lasted for some time.

 There are also the issues with the water itself.

 Residents say on at least some occasions they drink the water without any problems, but are distrustful of it because of a long history of nearby industrial activity that has led to contamination.

 "From time to time, we have water testers that work for the Nation go test the water, drink the water, go to the tap, check all the taps, check to make sure it's clean and everything else," said Randall Lewis, who has lived much of his life on the reserve.

 "And it is most of the time, but the local community really [doesn't] trust the water...they're valid concerns because what happens is it's clean one week and then the next week it might be contaminated."

 One point of concern is that the Cheekye reserve uses a septic system for its waste, said Lewis,

who has worked as the environmental representative for the Squamish Nation and founded the Squamish River Watershed Society.

 The fear is that sewage from the septic field can leak down into the aquifer and contaminate the water.

One solution, he said, would be to install a treatment plant in the area that would clean the sewage water, but that is unlikely to happen because it's an expensive proposition for a reserve that has only 15 houses.

 However, he noted, the water system is only designed to accommodate four houses.

 The Squamish Nation has stated that it's aware of concerns around what it calls "perceived contamination" from septic fields.

However, it says it continues to test the water regularly, and, to date, there have been no reports of septic issues causing water contamination.

Lewis said septic concerns are just one contributor to long-standing water issues on the reserve. These issues result from the cumulative effects of historical events since colonization.

He said the water has been impacted by industrial developments, land clearing, developments up in Whistler, energy generation, forestry, logging roads, highways, and the development of berms, dikes, and dams.

Water availability and quality has suffered as a result of these activities, he said. In some cases, they have been addressed, but cumulatively, they have impacted the supply.

 One major historical issue results from the diversion of the Cheakamus River, he said.

Lewis said that many years ago, authorities built dikes and berms to protect infrastructure in the Squamish Valley area.

However, this caused aquifers to dry up by taking groundwater further away from the reserve.

"They moved the river from one side of the valley right to the other," he said.

"What does that do? It cut off channels of water that used to flow down from there to the Cheekye reserve. That's the water that used to keep the aquifers for the reserve charged up 100% all the time."

A newly built channel helps keep the aquifer charged up, but Lewis said there are still ground surface impacts in terms of what's coming down from Whistler and potentially Garibaldi at Squamish.

Another problem involved sewage from Whistler, which came down from into the Daisy Reservoir, then into the Upper Squamish at Mile 22 powerhouse.

Lewis raised the issue in a Whistler Question article in October 1992, when Whistler's sewage treatment plant was listed on the province's "pollution concern" list.

 Back then, the province found the municipality was exceeding its permitted discharge — which was making its way into the Cheakamus River — 19% of the time.

 "We had sewage outflow up from Whistler that wasn't treated – pathogens, all kinds of pathogens, phosphorus and everything else," he said. "We knew our water was being impacted but to what extent, we didn't know."

Lewis said the Squamish Nation wanted testing for water by Indian Affairs, noting everything from toilet bowl cleaner, detergents, and other chemicals came down the river to Cheekye.

There was a proposal to build a sewage pipe to take sewage right into Howe Sound, but at the time, Squamish's wastewater was already entering Howe Sound.

Eventually, a plant was built in Whistler for tertiary treatment to clean the water.

Still, the Cheekye reserve's residents don't trust the water, and the supply of water still periodically cuts out, leaving those on reserve to rely on the regularly-delivered bottled water service.

Leanne 'Bird' Lewis, Randall’s niece, said some people call the water delivery a privilege, but it's anything but.

"We don't have the proper water," she said, noting her father documented 20 occasions in 2020 that the water service went out.

In the three years she's lived on the reserve, that water could be out for up to two days at a time. This year, there have been a handful of outages, she said.

"That's cooking, that's bathing, that's drinking."

The Squamish Chief reached her father, Allan 'Bebe' Lewis in the hospital where he is staying since a diving accident.

He could not speak for long or in great detail due to ongoing health issues, but he confirmed that water has been a long-standing issue on that reserve. Like his brother Randall, he grew up there as well.

"Our Squamish people here are out of sight, out of mind, and what's getting done?" Leanne said.

Leanne recalled one occasion where she couldn't even have a shower before an important meeting.

While she has a son who can lift the heavy bottled water jugs, Bird Lewis is concerned for the elders and young parents with children.

Leanne said it's particularly annoying when she hears that Cheekye residents chose to live there and should accept their fate when they were, in fact, forced onto the reserve.

"It is very taxing," she said.

Even when water is available, it is hard on the body and she needs a special soap to take care of her skin.

"My skin was getting really rough. If that's happening on the outside, what's happening on the inside?"

Using the restroom can be a chore.

"Even just to flush a toilet, you have to pour that water into the tank," she said. "I'll pour in extra water when I'm done for the next person who needs to use the washroom."

Every two weeks, Leanne receives six bottles for the four people living there (there were nine at one time).

"We've been using it for our primary [source] and then we have it there when we need it," she said. "It's not a privilege. It's a resource."

For the future, Randall's next concern is how the proposed Garibaldi at Squamish resort at Brohm Ridge could affect water on the reserve.

He's worried the massive development might drain the aquifer and send sewage down to the reserve. However, he said that Garibaldi at Squamish officials have promised to do tertiary sewage treatment to clean whatever waste may come down.

In an interview with The Chief, an official from Garibaldi at Squamish said there's a chance the project may not end up using the Cheekye reserve's aquifer.

"On our end, I think the most important thing I can say is we are currently exploring alternatives to going into the Cheakamus aquifer for water," said project director Sabina FooFat.

"We've identified some parts of the mountain where there's fractures in the bedrock that our hydrogeological engineers have identified could potentially hold water, so we are looking at alternatives."

FooFat also added Garibaldi at Squamish has been issued an environmental assessment certificate from the province that has extensive water investigation requirements for the project.

A two or three year evaluation process would be needed, and, on top of that, the province also passed the Water Sustainability Act in 2016.

"So we're talking about a second layer of application permit review studies, hydrogeological reports, before we could be issued a permit," said FooFat.

"If the province identifies that there is an impact to the aquifer or specifically to [Cheakamus] Reserve 11, they would come back to Garibaldi and either say you can't get the permit under these conditions, or you need to mitigate these circumstances, or you need to provide infrastructure. The province would be the judge of whether or not we could withdraw water."

If there's a negative impact to the reserve, Garibaldi at Squamish won't be issued a permit, she said.

When asked to comment for the story, Indigenous Services Canada referred The Squamish Chief to seek comment from the Squamish Nation regarding water issues.

The Squamish Nation's then-spokesperson, former councillor Chris Lewis, said that the Cheekye Reserve's water infrastructure was installed in late 1950s and early 1960s and outlived its usefulness.

Chris, who is Randall's nephew, did not seek re-election on the Nation's council, but the Nation's communications team said the information he provided was up to date as of mid-September.

By his account, there have been periodic water outages, but they have not been severe. In January, Cheekye had a temporary water outage, but crews resolved the outage "within a few hours."

"The system continued to have periodic outages," he said.

"We've been doing weekly water quality testing that has confirmed that there aren't any system-wide water quality issues at the time with our Squamish Valley residents in Cheekye and Chiyakmesh," he said.

"Although the water is safe, bottled water is delivered biweekly if residents prefer to drink this water than the water from the tap."

Chris said the Nation is trying to create trust in the water system, but providing bottled water nonetheless. They are also working to improve response times in case of an outage.

The planning and capital projects department recently completed a study regarding upgrading the system, which is expected to be presented to Nation council in the spring.

This potential upgrade would replace the current water system first, and perhaps later down the line extend its capacity.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks