Several cattle producers along the Wood River in south-central Saskatchewan have to move about 1,000 head to different pastures after water quality in the river declined unexpectedly.
The issue arose earlier this week after Saskatchewan Mining and Minerals, based at Chaplin, diverted water from the river for its sodium sulfate operations.
As a result, oxygen levels in the river that about a half dozen producers use to water their cattle dropped unacceptably low, according to one of those affected.
Gerry Duckworth said he knew something was wrong when he came across dozens of dead fish and an intense sewage smell.
Unable to get answers from the mining company or the province, he contacted the federal fisheries department. Environment Canada staff went to the site Aug. 3 to investigate and test the water.
Duckworth said he was told the oxygen level was less than half of one percent on the side the producers use for water but at an acceptable 11 percent on the other side of the diversion weir.
According to the mine website, it uses a brining process to obtain sodium sulfate from Chaplin Lake. Its primary sources of fresh water are local spring runoff and precipitation. The secondary source is water from the Wood River that is moved through the diversion managed by Ducks Unlimited.
“The diverted water flows through Chaplin Creek for 11 miles before entering the first of three Heritage Marsh ponds operated by Ducks Unlimited,” said the site. “The water flows through each of the two-mile long ponds before entering the first Saskatchewan Mining and Minerals fresh-water storage area.”
The company did not return a request, but its website also notes it has the required approvals and agreements with provincial agencies and ministries to transfer water.
Ducks Unlimited said it was aware the mine was diverting water due to the extreme drought conditions and was monitoring the situation. Assessments done July 27 and 31 found no dead fish in the diversion, the organization said.
But Duckworth said there are definitely dead fish in the river.
“They’ve dropped the river here about a foot in the last three or four days, but they’ve contaminated the river,” he said Aug. 2. “It turned the water from testing 2,100 (milligrams per litre) total dissolved solids to 4,400 in three days, and it just smells like sewage.
“And they didn’t tell anybody, they just did it.”
Duckworth said the cattle producers are out of luck for using river water the rest of the summer. Only opening the dam at Thompson Lake to put water in the river would alleviate the problem, he said, but officials aren’t likely to do that.
A provincial environmental protection officer also went to the site last week. Water quality results are expected next week.