Alberta residents fight to clean up lake

The northeastern Alberta lake is plagued by an algae-bloom that has been blamed on human activity, including farming

BONNYVILLE, Alta. — Efforts are heating up to deal with persistently re-appearing cases of scummy blue-green algae bloom on a popular lake in northeastern Alberta.

The Moose Lake watershed is home to farmers, ranchers and other residents. Human activities are affecting the lake, which includes direct dumping, the clearing of riparian areas, fertilizing lawns, leaky septic tanks and farming.

The lake is the main collector point of any debris before it’s slowly emptied into the Beaver River. It’s also the drinking water source for people who live in the Town of Bonnyville.

While it’s considered naturally nutrient-rich and is known for being plagued by algae blooms, the bloom this year was so bad the lake couldn’t be used for recreation.

Residents are pushing for stronger action to deal with the scum. A petition with more than 1,600 signatures to restore the lake has been formed and continues to gain traction.

“There is going to be a point where someone is going to have to make a decision,” said Mitch Sylvestre, who launched the petition and lives in a community near the lake. “Either Moose Lake becomes a slough and everyone dumps into it, or it gets fixed.”

The water levels of Moose Lake tend to move up and down in cycles. In 2017, it was at one of its highest levels, flooding homes and causing issues for residents.

But the problem didn’t end there, said Matt Janz, director of agriculture and waste management services with the Municipal District of Bonnyville.

Blue-green algae is an ongoing problem on Moose Lake in northeastern Alberta, and residents are pushing for stronger action to deal with the problem. | Kellie Nichiporik photo

He said when it flooded, cattails ripped up and clogged the weir, holding water back that was supposed to drain. Officials have also been dealing with many beaver dams, which have slowed the lake from flushing the high nutrients.

As well, septic tanks were likely affected by the flooding and now could be slowly leaking into the lake, adding more unwanted debris. Some leftover sandbags that were used to stave off high water levels also emptied into the lake.

“It was kind of like a perfect storm,” Janz said.

Even though human activity of all sorts is contributing to the problem, municipal officials want to get a better sense of what’s having the biggest impact on the algae bloom.

The municipal district is funding $50,000 for the Lakeland Agricultural Research Association to purchase a water-quality tester. It will allow them to determine who or what is causing the most problems, said Kellie Nichiporik, environmental program manager with the research association.

She said tests will begin next year.

“We will be able to target our restoration efforts once we see who is really contributing to the problems,” said Nichiporik, who is also board chair of the Moose Lake Watershed Society.

While human activities are likely the main cause, she said the growing number of cormorants could also be contributing to the algae bloom. The birds eat lots of the lake’s fish, which are critical at keeping nutrient levels down.

As well, some see the weir as a problem. It was installed in 1950 to keep water from escaping in low-level years, but now is viewed by some as a blockage. They say it’s not letting unwanted nutrients flow out fast enough.

“Opening up that weir might let the water drain faster and get those nutrients out of there,” Sylvestre said. “This nutrient overload has got to stop.”

He would like to see the municipality move faster on restoration. That could include mandating residents to have their septic tanks pumped out, enforcing no-dumping rules if possible, and restoring riparian areas and wetlands in the watershed.

“Everyone has acknowledged there is a problem, but we need to do something, anything to start,” he said.

The question then becomes what the municipal district and residents are willing to pay for clean-up.

Having septic tanks pumped monthly or even installing a direct sewage pipe from the roughly 2,000 homes near the lake would be costly. So is potentially compensating farmers for returning productive farmland into wetland.

“Maybe we could do a piping system, but that would be expensive,” Janz said. “With the new money the municipal district has put in with testing, I think that’s the first right step.”

As a way to immediately help the problem, Janz said residents should inspect their septic tanks and get them fixed if they are leaking. He said the district can’t come on to people’s properties to force an inspection.

Nichiporik said homeowners living around the lake can also avoid applying fertilizer and mowing their lawns. They should plant trees, keep their riparian areas intact and not dump garbage or other debris in the lake.

One year, she said she and a team of volunteers cleaned up roughly 2,200 kilograms of garbage from the lake. A hot tub was floating and there was an abandoned camper trailer by the shoreline.

“A lot of people think, ‘I’m just one person, I won’t have an impact,’ ” she said. “If everyone around the lake thinks that way, we will have a huge impact.”

She said the research association has partnered with many farmers and cattle producers to start an environmental plan. It includes off-site watering, fencing off riparian areas and not grazing some sections of land in the spring to limit shoreline compaction and erosion.

“If we help repair wetlands and riparian areas, it helps prevent droughts and floods,” she said. “It stores water when water is high and releases it when water is low.”

Luc Tellier, a cattle and grain farmer in the Moose Lake watershed, conducted an environmental plan with the help of the research association. He has also received some funds from Ducks Unlimited Canada to improve his environmental impacts.

For instance, he has numerous off-site watering areas. He also fences off sensitive lands and doesn’t graze a certain section until around autumn because birds are nesting in June.

“The environment is important, but I think it really helps with the ranch financially, too,” he said. “It works hand-in-hand. The ranch has to make me money and has to pay the bills. If it’s not, it’s not working.”

The projects on his farm were funded in the form of a cost-share agreement.

“If there is lots of free money out there, why not use it?” He said. “You still have to go in 50 percent, and you can’t go hog-wild and do whatever you want, but it sure helps.”

While some producers might not being doing much to lessen their impacts on the environment, Tellier said he thinks most of them are trying to do their best.

“There are always places to improve. There is no doubt about that,” he said. “Maybe 50 years from now, we will think we shouldn’t have done this or should have done that, but I think we’re doing the best with what we know today.”

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