Opinion: Saskatchewan lakes' water quality challenges too important to ignore
IN A PROVINCE that’s home to nearly half of Canada’s arable land, the impact of farming operations on downstream water bodies is huge. It’s easy enough to shrug it off when a research paper that involved the study of nearly 400 temperate lakes worldwide identified Wascana Lake as among the leaders in water bodies that are losing oxygen the fastest, both at the surface level and at the lake bottom.
WHILE MANY PEOPLE MIGHT regard the Regina lake as nothing more than a glorified slough unworthy of global consideration, the factors that contribute to its degradation also affect lakes elsewhere in Saskatchewan — particularly the shallow lakes across the southern part of the province — and indeed across much of Canada.
DESPITE CLAIMS BY POLITICIANS and government publications about Saskatchewan being blessed with an abundance of high quality fresh water, the reality is that the quality of water in the southern Prairies has never been anything to brag about and, in many cases, is getting worse.
A MULTITUDE OF FACTORS contribute to the problem, starting with climate change that is warming freshwater lakes and contributing to the growth and proliferation of blue-green algae blooms. Runoff of nutrients into lakes, mainly phosphorous and nitrogen from agricultural operations and sewage effluent, exacerbates the problem.
AS THE LAKE STUDY, co-authored by University of Regina biologist Peter Leavitt and published recently in the highly regarded Nature Journal notes, the higher water temperature reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen at the lake surface.
THE WARM WATER AT THE TOP, which promotes algae growth, is a stratified layer that mixes less with the colder layer at the bottom of the lake. As algae die, settle to the lake bottom and decompose, the process consumes oxygen, making the water inhospitable for aquatic life, including fish that can die off in large numbers.
IN A PROVINCE THAT'S HOME TO NEARLY HALF of Canada’s arable land, or more than 60 million acres, the impact of farming operations on downstream water bodies is huge, especially as mounting financial pressure on farmers to maximize returns has led to putting marginal land into production. It’s also led to the steady loss of wetlands that contribute to improving water quality and reducing nutrient runoff.
WITH THE PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT PLANNING to increase irrigation by wider distribution of water from Lake Diefenbaker into surrounding areas, the IMPACTS COULD BE GREAT unless care is taken to prevent bringing marginal lands into production, losing even more wetlands and grasslands, and return flows carrying nutrient loads.
IN AN AGRICULTURE DOMINANT PROVINCE where a careful balance has to be struck between the vital economic necessities of farming and protecting the environment for the future, maintaining the complex relationship requires far-sighted leadership that goes beyond four-year electoral cycles.
“WE CAN'T LOCALLY CONTROL THE CLIMATE, and global climate change is worsening water quality. So we need to think about what we can locally control, and a lot of that is nutrient management,” said Helen Baulch, associate professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability.
THAT MEANS GETTING THE RIGHT MESSAGE TO PRODUCERS about nutrient application and soil management, and about employing right practices to avoid creating water quality problems, she said.
THERE'S NO DOUBT THAT THE CHALLENGES ARE COMPLEX. As she and her team have found, practices such as reduced tillage that have been widely adopted because they are fantastic for retaining carbon and soil moisture, actually increase phosphorous runoff by trapping nutrients close to the soil surface. The decaying of vegetation over the winter further adds to the nutrient load.
AND DESPITE SOME CLAIMS THAT THE PRAIRIES HAVE NO RUNOFF, there's no foundation for it, she said. Spring melt atop the frozen ground transports phosphorous into downstream lakes, as do major weather events such as the recent rainstorms.
RESEARCHERS SUCH AS USASK biology professor Christy Morrissey are working with farmers to turn areas surrounding wetlands to forage crops because it’s economically more beneficial.
AS PRESSURES INCREASE ON PRODUCERS to use more nutrient inputs to maximize crop yields not only to earn a living but to feed a hungry world, a collaborative approach is needed by researchers, producers and policy makers to manage the downstream impacts.
WASCANA LAKE IS INDICATIVE OF THE CHALLENGE facing Saskatchewan. We can’t dismiss it any more than we can take for granted the future of Lake Diefenbaker.