Calgary

Woman swims across reservoir that supplies her city's water to protest coal mines that could put it at risk

She cut a lonely figure — a sole swimmer slicing through the chilly blue-green water, her eyes on the wind turbines rising above the distant shore.

Nichole Robinson swam 14 kilometres across the Oldman River Reservoir

Nichole Robinson swam across the Oldman River reservoir on Saturday to raise awareness of the impact open-pit mining could have on the region's drinking water. (Submitted by Ragnar Robinson)

She cut a lonely figure — a sole swimmer slicing through the chilly blue-green water, her eyes on the wind turbines rising above the distant shore.

"Everything seems pretty quiet when you're in the water, lots of time to reflect on things," said Nichole Robinson.

On Saturday, Robinson had nearly five hours to reflect on why she had chosen to tackle the 14-kilometre swim across the Oldman River Reservoir in southern Alberta.

Nichole Robinson, 26, prepares to start her swim across the Oldman River Reservoir on Saturday. (Submitted by Ragnar Robinson)

The now 26-year-old swam competitively while she was a student at the University of Alberta, where she studied environmental science.

With those interests, it's no surprise that she views water as Canada's most important resource.

"We're so lucky to have the water that we have and so many places around the world don't have that same kind of luxury where I can swim in it, I can fish from it, I can drink right from it," she said. 

So when the Lethbridge resident heard that the provincial government had rescinded a decades-old policy that banned open-pit coal mining in many parts of the province, she felt that despite not being an activist, she had to find a way to draw attention to the situation.

The government has said it's committed to protecting watersheds and ecologically sensitive areas.

But Robinson has concerns, especially because the Oldman River watershed provides all of Lethbridge's water, and the new rules open the door for open-pit mines in the Crowsnest Pass area, near where the headwaters of the Oldman River are located.

In B.C., open pit mines have leached selenium into rivers in the Elk Valley area for years. Selenium is a metal that is safe in water in low levels, but in high levels can cause nausea or even neurological problems from long-term exposure. 

"The way the province rescinded the coal policy from the '70s, they did it with no public consultation and it happened really quietly," she said. 

"I get that we need jobs and I get that we're struggling, but I think that even in a desperate time we need to think long term and not forget that what we do today will impact 50 to 100 years down the road and it's not just about the next 10 to 20 years."

Nichole Robinson, 26, said some Lethbridge residents may not realize that their drinking water comes from the Oldman River watershed. (Submitted by Ragnar Robinson)

Robinson's swim took her from North Fork campground to Windy Point campground. Her husband followed her progress in a kayak, recording her on a GoPro along the way.

Around 20 people gathered on the shore to cheer her on.

She said while the swim initially seemed intimidating — especially due to strong winds during the first part of the day — the experience was better than she had anticipated.

"We're stronger than we think we are and if we can get together and stand up for what we believe in, it can make a difference," she said. 

With files from Terri Trembath

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