Algae blooms becoming more intense, lasting longer in Qu'Appelle Valley lakes: U of Regina biologist

First Nations leaders, community activists and university scientists say they're growing increasingly worried about the Qu'Appelle Valley chain of lakes, with water quality sometimes dipping below recreational use standards and toxic algae blooms increasing in severity.

'We're going to get hit with some wicked ... algae if we don't start building policies,' advocate says

Pasqua Lake on the left and Echo Lake on the right are part of the Lower Qu'Appelle River watershed. (Adam Hunter/CBC)

First Nations leaders, community activists and university scientists say they're growing increasingly worried about the Qu'Appelle Valley chain of lakes, with water quality sometimes dipping below recreational use standards and toxic algae blooms increasing in severity.

"We're going to get hit with some wicked blue-green-purple algae if we don't start building policies and protecting our fresh water," said Aura Lee MacPherson, chair of the Calling Lakes Ecomuseum, an advocacy group that works to protect the Lower Qu'Appelle River watershed, in southeastern Saskatchewan.

Toxic blue-green algae blooms, which form a thick, stinky sludge on some lakes during the summer are showing up earlier in the season, in more intense concentrations and lasting longer, according to University of Regina biologist Peter Leavitt.

"We're now seeing those toxins across about half of the lakes in southern Saskatchewan," Leavitt said.

Reports of unusually large algae blooms, or even those occurring at unexpected times of the year, frequently make their way across Leavitt's desk.

In March, a fisherman drilled through the ice on Pasqua Lake and discovered the water appeared almost purple, Leavitt says — which the U of R biologist attributed to a large blue-green algae bloom that occurred late last fall.

Pasqua Lake is part of the lower Qu'Appelle River watershed, which includes Echo, Mission, Katepwa, Crooked and Round lakes and extends from the Manitoba border to Craven, about 40 kilometers northwest of Regina.

It is also ground zero for much of Leavitt's research into the effects of climate and nitrogen on lakes.

"We do know that those blooms … are starting earlier. They're becoming more intense and they're lasting longer," Leavitt said, citing atmospheric warming as a leading cause.

Leavitt published a paper last year that found toxins were present in the Qu'Appelle lakes during more days of the summer than 15 years earlier. Toxin levels in the lakes, at times, were above recreational advisory levels, his paper said.

Blue-green algae looks like scum, fuzz or grass clippings on the surface of water. (Bruce Johnson)

The algae blooms are also fed by phosphorus and nitrates released into the water system from municipal wastewater plants or through runoff from agricultural operations. Cabin owners sometimes also contribute to the algae by fertilizing their lawns, not having proper septic systems or letting outdoor showers drain into the lake, Leavitt said.

Even with a recent $175-million upgrade to Regina's wastewater plant, levels of phosphorus and nitrates being released into the river system can still be reduced, Leavitt said.

"The public needs to apply pressure if they want the city to do a better job, because right now they're doing it to code and there's no reason for them to do better than code."

According to the City of Regina, the upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant reduced the amount of nutrients being released into the river system by between 50 and 80 per cent.

The Calling Lake Ecomuseum's MacPherson says she was pushed into water quality advocacy in 2014, when the City of Regina released untreated sewage into the Qu'Appelle River system following a heavy rain that threatened to overflow city lagoons.

The sewage release forced resort communities downstream of Regina to close beaches, and the public was advised not to swim in the lakes.

Wetland conservation policy needed

MacPherson commended the City of Regina for its work to reduce nutrients from entering the river system in recent years, but said the province needs to do more to protect the lakes.

Saskatchewan is the only province in Canada without a wetland conservation policy, she said — something that is needed to improve water quality.

"Wetlands purify the water and they prevent flooding. They have a whole host of cleansing properties," MacPherson said.

Patrick Boyle, a spokesperson for Saskatchewan's Water Security Agency, said the province is currently reviewing its agricultural water management policy.

"This is the first time in three-and-a-half decades any government has reviewed agricultural water management. This plan is focused on getting it right for Saskatchewan, particularly in relation to wetlands," Boyle said in an emailed statement.

He said the agency invested $1 million last year on 11 different agricultural demonstration projects, some of which focus on retaining wetlands and improving water quality. 

In February, the Municipalities of Saskatchewan advocacy organization passed a resolution to lobby the province, and its Water Security Agency, to develop and adopt a wetland policy similar to those in place in Alberta and Manitoba.

Matthew T. Peigan, chief of the Pasqua First Nation — which reaches the shores of Pasqua Lake — has commissioned a study to see how much water quality has improved since the upgrades to Regina's wastewater plant.

"Water is life. Plain and simple. You can have all kinds of industry creating all kinds of wealth, but if we don't protect our precious source of fresh water our survivability rate drops," Peigan said.

"Unfortunately, governments aren't placing water at the top of the list."

Boyle said the government is continually monitoring water quality levels in the Qu'Appelle River system.

He noted that the area has historically had high nutrient levels in the water and that the Water Security Agency publicly posts all data from the lakes on SaskH20 .

'Like really thick pea soup'

Michelle Brass lives with her family on Peepeekisis First Nation, about 40 kilometres north of the Qu'Appelle lakes. She harvests most of her own food through hunting, fishing and gathering berries.

She prefers not to eat fish caught in the Qu'Appelle lakes.

Michelle Brass worries the fish from the Qu'Appelle lakes isn't safe to eat. (Submitted)

"We've been concerned for many years about the water quality in the lakes throughout the Qu'Appelle Valley," she said.

"Usually by August in the hot summer, it looks like really thick pea soup.… Even just going into the lake with your boat or swimming doesn't feel good. And so eating fish from there doesn't feel good as well."

Brass said officials have told her husband that the fishery is healthy in the lakes. 

"It seems that it's really about having a healthy fishery for sport fishing.

"But as far as a healthy fishery, in terms of the fish … is the pollution going to affect that fish and then therefore our health?"

For Leavitt, there is no quick fix to the problem. 

"For me, asking for clear water tomorrow is a waste of time. It isn't going to happen," he said.

"Maybe the goal is I want my grandchildren to have water that they can swim in without worrying about toxins or algae blooms or with healthy fish populations.

"So you're looking now at more of a 40 or 50-year timeline. So we don't have to do everything now."