Six years ago, a group of environmental scientists, environmental planners, and water specialists sat down for lunch with the elected leader of a distant community to hear the community’s story of a watershed gone bad, years of contaminated water, and a seemingly permanent boil water advisory affecting the health of families and preventing economic development. The story was not from a Third World community, but from Constance Lake First Nation (CLFN) in northern Ontario.

Strongly affected by the story told by the Chief of CLFN, the members of the group around the lunch table decided to act. They decided to change the situation for CLFN, whatever it took. At Constance Lake First Nation, the community’s water supply was from a surface water source – Constance Lake – which had for many years been affected by toxic blue green algae. The members of the group around the lunch table formed a team to investigate the situation and search for solutions.

The team reached out to industry, government, and community resources to solve the problem.  By July 2012, the team included Shared Value Solutions Ltd., experts and water engineers from AECOM and Hutchinson Environmental, technical support from water industry experts at Napier-Reid and GE Water, and government support from the Matawa Tribal Council, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. As the team spread the story that the Chief of Constance Lake First Nation had told them, more partners became willing to come to the table to act and make a change.

The first set of financial resources came from a generous Ontario Ministry of the Environment Water Innovation grant and funding from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to look at water supply alternatives for CLFN.  The team determined that a great deal of research needed to be done to understand the toxic blue green algae situation for Constance Lake.  However, the community could not wait for the research.  It needed to get clean, safe water, and to get off the boil water advisory through a quicker, permanent solution as soon as possible.

CLFN conducted groundwater drilling investigations and discovered high quality and sufficient quantities of groundwater.  Using the MOE grant to support the purchase of innovative Ontario water treatment technology from Napier-Reid to filter high iron content from the groundwater, the community was able to drill groundwater wells and gain access to safe water.

Now there was a terrific success story to tell to bring more partners on board – this was a story of unusual collaboration, planning and action to overcome a huge Third World style challenge in the middle of Canada.  The story got told and heard, and with further planning and financial support from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the community was able to develop a long-term plan to rebuild its water treatment system around the new groundwater supply.

Moving from blue green algae contaminated surface water to a safe groundwater supply was a huge and important step for CLFN.  The key lesson learned from this story is that the path to enhanced community wellbeing requires more than technical solutions – it requires people throughout a watershed to understand their watershed and the need to protect it and the ecosystem around it.  It requires people telling stories, listening to stories, and moving to action.  Groundwater sources require special attention from people because they are hidden from view.

The core group that first met with the Chief of CLFN for lunch six years ago decided to get beyond technology and science and get more involved in storytelling and bringing people together to share stories. The next step was to create platforms for stories to be shared and for people to come together to create and implement action plans.  The next step required a groundswell of interest in watersheds and groundwater.  And so GroundSwell, a conference on groundwater innovation for creating shared value for groundwater communities, researchers, and technical innovators was born.