Thursday, May 27th 2021, 2:52 pm - 'We're going to get hit with some wicked ... algae if we don't start building policies,' advocate says
First Nations leaders, community activists and university scientists say they're growing increasingly worried about the Qu'Appelle Valley chain of lakes, with water quality sometimes dipping below recreational use standards and toxic algae blooms increasing in severity.
"We're going to get hit with some wicked blue-green-purple algae if we don't start building policies and protecting our fresh water," said Aura Lee MacPherson, chair of the Calling Lakes Ecomuseum, an advocacy group that works to protect the Lower Qu'Appelle River watershed, in southeastern Saskatchewan.
Toxic blue-green algae blooms, which form a thick, stinky sludge on some lakes during the summer are showing up earlier in the season, in more intense concentrations and lasting longer, according to University of Regina biologist Peter Leavitt.
"We're now seeing those toxins across about half of the lakes in southern Saskatchewan," Leavitt said.
Blue-green algae looks like scum, fuzz or grass clippings on the surface of water. (Bruce Johnson/via CBC News)
Reports of unusually large algae blooms, or even those occurring at unexpected times of the year, frequently make their way across Leavitt's desk.
In March, a fisherman drilled through the ice on Pasqua Lake and discovered the water appeared almost purple, Leavitt says — which the U of R biologist attributed to a large blue-green algae bloom that occurred late last fall.
Pasqua Lake is part of the lower Qu'Appelle River watershed, which includes Echo, Mission, Katepwa, Crooked and Round lakes and extends from the Manitoba border to Craven, about 40 kilometers northwest of Regina.
It is also ground zero for much of Leavitt's research into the effects of climate and nitrogen on lakes.
"We do know that those blooms … are starting earlier. They're becoming more intense and they're lasting longer," Leavitt said, citing atmospheric warming as a leading cause.
Leavitt published a paper last year that found toxins were present in the Qu'Appelle lakes during more days of the summer than 15 years earlier. Toxin levels in the lakes, at times, were above recreational advisory levels, his paper said.
The algae blooms are also fed by phosphorus and nitrates released into the water system from municipal wastewater plants or through runoff from agricultural operations. Cabin owners sometimes also contribute to the algae by fertilizing their lawns, not having proper septic systems or letting outdoor showers drain into the lake, Leavitt said.
WATCH BELOW: TOXIC BLUE-GREEN ALGAE AND YOUR PETS, WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Even with a recent $175-million upgrade to Regina's wastewater plant, levels of phosphorus and nitrates being released into the river system can still be reduced, Leavitt said.
"The public needs to apply pressure if they want the city to do a better job, because right now they're doing it to code and there's no reason for them to do better than code."
According to the City of Regina, the upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant reduced the amount of nutrients being released into the river system by between 50 and 80 per cent.
The Calling Lake Ecomuseum's MacPherson says she was pushed into water quality advocacy in 2014, when the City of Regina released untreated sewage into the Qu'Appelle River system following a heavy rain that threatened to overflow city lagoons.
The sewage release forced resort communities downstream of Regina to close beaches, and the public was advised not to swim in the lakes.
WETLAND CONSERVATION POLICY NEEDED
MacPherson commended the City of Regina for its work to reduce nutrients from entering the river system in recent years, but said the province needs to do more to protect the lakes.
Saskatchewan is the only province in Canada without a wetland conservation policy, she said — something that is needed to improve water quality.
"Wetlands purify the water and they prevent flooding. They have a whole host of cleansing properties," MacPherson said.
Patrick Boyle, a spokesperson for Saskatchewan's Water Security Agency, said the province is currently reviewing its agricultural water management policy.
"This is the first time in three-and-a-half decades any government has reviewed agricultural water management. This plan is focused on getting it right for Saskatchewan, particularly in relation to wetlands," Boyle said in an emailed statement.
He said the agency invested $1 million last year on 11 different agricultural demonstration projects, some of which focus on retaining wetlands and improving water quality.