Kitchener-Waterloo

Pollution reduction work can take decades to see results

University of Waterloo professor says it can take up to 35 years to see the effect of pollution reduction

Lake Erie Algae

In this Aug. 3, 2014, file photo, an algae bloom covers Lake Erie near the City of Toledo water intake crib off the shore of Curtice, Ohio. Blue-green algae has been causing issues across Canada this summer, an issue that comes from pollution practices we saw in the 1970s and 80s. (The Associated Press)

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A professor at the University of Waterloo reports that while efforts to reduce water pollution from fertilizers have increased, Canadians will have to wait decades to see the actual results.

"Some time frames that we saw here ranged from 10 years to 30 or 35," said Nandita Basu, associate professor of science and engineering at UW.

Worth the wait

Basu said that many farmers feel discouraged when they don't see the results of new practices like timed fertilization, or applying them deeper underground to minimize pollution and maximize efficiency.

"The pollution effects are reducing," she said, but "it's kind of similar to gaining weight." Losing it is not as easy.

"It takes a while to see the effect," Basu said.

Nandita Basu

Basu says that the challenge of reducing pollution is a lot like losing weight. Stores built up over time take a while to deplete before results can be seen. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

Applications of fertilizers over time have built up the levels of nutrients in the landscape, not dissimilar in the way people build up fat mass over time. Reduction efforts, or calorie-cutting, have positive benefits, but they're not always visible at first.

A 'vintage revival'

This year, Basu said the effects of practices in the 1970s and 80s are visible, and especially so this year with prominent algal blooms in the Great Lakes.

"That's the main impact of these pollutants," she said, and there are two main issues that come from these blooms.

"One is that they deplete oxygen and lead to fish kills in our water bodies. The second is that some of these algae are called cyanobacteria, and they produce toxic materials."

'If we can tap into these stores effectively, then we can use it up faster and some of these lag times would be reduced.' - Nandita Basu, University of Waterloo

Algal blooms also force governments to treat the water differently for drinking, costing extra time and money.

While researchers are looking into ways to speed up the process, Basu says for now, patience is a virtue, but also the easiest option.

"If we can tap into these stores effectively, then we can use it up faster and some of these lag times would be reduced," she said.

"I'm not saying that it will definitely be 30 years. We can make it 20 or even 10."