WCW Member Profile – Chris Buist

Working-in-Water-logoWCW Member Profile – Chris Buist Water/Wastewater Operator for the Town of Norman Wells, NWT. 

Chris BuistName: Chris Buist
Company/City: Town of Norman Wells, NWT
Position: Water/Wastewater Operator

Core Function:

The Town’s utilities crew of manager and two operators is responsible for all sampling, testing, monitoring and recording of data, as well as the operation and maintenance of all facets of the Town’s infrastructure, including budgeting and capital project planning. We work in shifts to cover all operational needs and emergencies. About 30% of Norman Wells’ water and sewer lines are underground and have been in place since the town was being built in the early 70s. Insulated, above-ground utilidors built between 1975 and 1985, enclosing both water and sewer lines, serve about 50% of the town and the remainder get trucked water and sewer service. Water is pumped from the Mackenzie River into a Class II Water Treatment Plant. Sewage is piped to a constructed two-cell system that later drains into a chain of natural lakes.


I was born in Calgary, raised throughout Alberta, and have lived in Norman Wells, NT since 1982.

I started out working in oil field services, spent a few years in the trades then about a decade managing various businesses, before starting to work for the Town of Norman Wells five years ago. I have been a water plant operator for three years and am now also the acting utilities manager for the Town.  I’ve taken all the training in this field that is available locally and now have my Class II Water Plant Operator certificate.

Job Satisfaction:

I like the variety in the work of a water plant operator. This keeps it challenging and provides a continuous learning curve. The daily issues that come up challenge our knowledge base and constantly encourage conscientiousness. There’s a healthy mutual respect in the department and that supports our personal development.  The highlights of my career include receiving the NWT Water Award for two of three years I have been an operator.


The northern climate, with its extreme cold temperatures and winter darkness, poses serious challenges, as does the remoteness of our community. Repairs and maintenance that must be done in cold temperatures without natural light are some of the challenges we face. Others are logistical issues caused by our location and the cost of transportation in the North. The barges on the Mackenzie River from June to September and the ice roads in operation from January to March provide two small windows of cost effective re-supply for water plant chemicals and supplies for regular maintenance, repairs and projects. Shipping by air, considerably more expensive, satisfies our needs the rest of the year, but accurate pre-planning is essential to meeting our fiscal responsibilities. Due to the size of our community (population 750) local suppliers carry only a limited stock of supplies, so we must procure these from outside our region or territory much of the time and the freight cost adds significantly to the landed cost.

Attracting and retaining skilled operators presents a serious challenge. The only training available is provided by the Government of the Northwest Territories’ Department of Municipal Affairs’ School of Community Government. This training is available to the level of the Town’s needs, but not further, so it fails to provide workers with opportunities for further career advancement.

The Town’s raw water supply is the Mackenzie River. During spring ice break-up and high water conditions, the turbidity of the water reaches levels beyond 4000 NTU, challenging the design of the treatment facilities. The increased organics and debris cause fluctuations in PH, alkalinity and conductivity of the raw supply, which inhibits the effectiveness of the treatment chemicals designed for normal operational conditions.

Advice for a Successful Career

The health and safety of your community must be the key focus of attention, if you are to succeed in a water-based career. This is the primary responsibility of water operators. Gaining knowledge, though continued learning, will prepare you for the technical aspects of your position. Be conscientious about the quality of the work you do and take pride in it. Acknowledge the positive efforts of your managers and peers to gain their respect.  Individuals who are motivated, and take the initiative at work, are generally noticed by quality employers, and this can expedite your opportunities for advancement.

Life away from work:

I’ve spent most of my life involved with business, first my parents’ businesses and then my own. I have been President of the local Chamber of Commerce for the past five years.  I am very interested in promoting economic development and have been active in doing this through the Chamber for many years now. I’ve also volunteered for 15 years with the local fire department.  Beyond that, I do all the regular northern things: fishing, hunting, boating and skidooing.