Environmental crisis or just another scare?

by Mo Laidlaw
, 31 August 2007

News this summer of toxic blooms in Lake Edja (Bouchette), at O’Brien beach in Gatineau Park, and other lakes in West Québec may have scared you, particularly if you use lake water for drinking, cooking, showering or washing clothes, as well as enjoying lake activities. Or did you think “Oh no, environmentalists crying doom again”?

Cyanobacteria is the scientific name for pond scum, also known as blue-green algae, although the colour ranges from olive green to red. When present in large quantities - a “bloom” - they can cause skin irritations, and when they die, some release toxins. Mycrocystins are the most common of the cyanobacterial toxins found in water, as well as being the ones most often responsible for poisoning animals and humans.

The Edmonton Journal reported on 17 August that in Saskatchewan, 40 farmed bison died from drinking water contaminated with cyanobacteria. “Some died within 30 minutes of ingesting the water - sometimes while still standing in a body of water.” Another Saskatchewan farmer lost 14 cows and 2 bulls. “Blooms occur during calm, hot weather in shallow, slow moving or still water that is rich in nutrients.” Obviously cyanobacteria are a real threat. In the prairies they are an annual problem.

In Québec, farmers are required to keep livestock out of streams and lakes by putting up fences and providing alternative sources of drinking water, because while livestock drink in a stream their manure and urine add to the nutrient level in the water. But some farmers have not yet complied - fencing is expensive and perhaps they don’t know anyone who has lost livestock.

Phosphates are the main cause of blooms of cyanobacteria. Phosphates are in garden and farm fertilisers, human wastes from faulty septic systems, animal wastes, and in most automatic dishwasher detergents. Laundry detergents and washing-up liquid have not contained phosphates for many years, by federal regulation, which makes it puzzling that some dishwasher detergents contain up to 30% phosphates - apparently we should read the labels.

Fact-finding by the environment minister
Line Beauchamp, the Minister of Environment (and sustainable development and parks), visited Lac Gauvreau in La Pêche on the 27th August. This lake was first affected in 2000. The municipality and lake association inspected septic systems, replanted lake banks with bushes and trees, improved a campsite’s septic system and put up fences to prevent cattle from drinking in the Parent stream, the main input to the lake. About a third of lakeside septic systems were updated or replaced. The water is tested frequently and has been clear for the last three years.

Le Droit reported that Mme Beauchamp said that the government will help municipalities enforce regulations that protect lakes. “Where people are well-informed there has been some success. Some municipalities have trouble applying the regulations. Apparently some municipalities do not dare to force owners to plant trees and shrubs where natural vegetation within 15 metres of a bank has been removed. Our experts tell us that these owners do not have acquired rights.” Natural vegetation acts as a filter for phosphates, and does not require fertiliser, unlike lawns. When Mme Beauchamp later visited Meech Lake, a cottage owner told her that most of the mown grass on the banks is owned by the NCC. The provincial government has no power over the NCC, a federal body.

What are other municipalities doing?
Val-des-Monts held its annual Water Quality day on July 14. Mayor Marc Carrière, also warden of the MRC des Collines, said that inspections of septic systems (an important source of pollution) are going well. “Since 2001 we have inspected three quarters of the MRC des Collines municipalities and all the waterfront properties in Val-des-Monts.” This year Val-des-Monts passed a bylaw banning the use of garden pesticides and fertilisers.

Jacques Lamarche, a biologist who lives near Lac Saint-Pierre, doesn’t think that education campaigns are enough. He claims that a moratorium on new cottage construction on lakes and a program to plant trees and shrubs on the banks is the only way to prevent a catastrophe. “There should be certificates of compliance for vegetation as well as for septic systems. People build too close to the water’s edge. Forget having a green lawn at the cottage,” he said, in Le Droit.

The municipality of Pontiac is still waiting for one or more inspectors to be hired to enable the start of inspections of all septic systems. Citizen Jean-Claude Carisse frequently asks council when this will happen, as well as suggesting a program of water testing near the beaches on the Ottawa River - a job for a summer student. Perhaps there is complacency because pollutants are often diluted by the large volume of the Ottawa River - except in some bays.

Waterfront property owners are largely responsible for the problem. We all have to realise that pollution and cyanobacteria are bad for property values as well as the environment. Ignorance is no excuse. We have to stop harming the environment for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

What to do to prevent growth of cyanobacteria
Don’t spread manure, compost or fertiliser near a stream or lake.
Don’t use soap or dishwasher detergents containing phosphates (read labels).
Plant trees and shrubs on the banks and shores of lakes, streams and rivers to absorb phosphates, the main cause of blooms.

If your lake is contaminated, don’t drink the lake water. Boiling does not make the water drinkable as it kills the cyanobacteria and liberates the toxins. Domestic water filters will not remove cyanobacteria.