Researchers raise alarm over phosphorus in Lake Diefenbaker

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June 11, 2013 - 6:53am Updated: June 11, 2013 - 2:01pm
Lake Diefenbaker file photo. Wikipedia Commons
Lake Diefenbaker file photo. Wikipedia Commons

Research being done at Lake Diefenbaker is bringing comfort to a nearby mayor, despite the lake's water being described as chemical and possibly harmful.

Two years ago, the University of Saskatchewan's Global Institute for Water Security received a grant and began work on a study to look at the Saskatchewan River basin to see environmental change and issues around land and water management.  Headed by Howard Wheater, the Canada excellence research chair in water security at the institute, the study found issues with the level of nutrients at Lake Diefenbaker, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. 

"There's really a global problem about putting increased pressure on our watercology on these issues, but it’s starting to play out in the province," said Wheater

Several activities contribute to an increased phosphorus level, including sewage, and agricultural uses of fertilizer and manure.  Wheater explains the increased phosphorus could bring up serious problems due to large-scale algae growth. Not only is the algae unsightly but he says it also creates difficulties when treating water and can contain the highly-toxic Blue-Green species of algae.

"(Blue-Green algae) has been known to kill animals.  Dogs and cattle, for example, have died by drinking water that has got this scum of algae on it," Wheater explained.

Having the researchers look at the phosphorus in the lake has been a bit of a relief for Bill Nike, mayor of the nearby town of Elbow.  He admits he didn't realize the extent of issues the lake water had. 

"When people are visiting or walking along the water system and see algal blooms on the surface, it raises question as to why and what does this mean," Nike said.

Since the study began, the researchers have consulted the nearby communities, Nike explains, and have done a good job ensuring that everyone is kept up to date with the latest findings.

"I think the positive thing is we've got this world-class leadership, this global-water institute really focussing its purpose to not only make recommendations to the powers that need to be receiving that information, but also to take the thing into a further field on a world-wide basis with regard to water-management issues."

For now, the researchers are working with the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency, informing the government as it negotiates a resolution for a major source of the phosphorus: water from Alberta.

"The big load is coming down the river from Alberta," Wheater explained, "so it’s a problem we're inheriting from upstream."

While Alberta and Saskatchewan both have guidelines about phosphorus levels in its rivers, those in Alberta are not being met.

Ken Cheveldayoff is the Minister in Charge of the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency. He is confident in the work already being done in the province to study and protect our water supply.

“What’s happening here in Saskatchewan is done very well, what we need to do is talk to our neighbours in Alberta,” Cheveldayoff said, noting there is room for more study and regulation regarding phosphorus and how it gets into the water body.

He also pointed out that phosphorus itself is a naturally occurring element. When asked about the possibility of toxic blue green algae, Cheveldayoff said Manitoba is already seeing that issue.

Our province regulates the amount of phosphorus that flows into other provinces from our rivers research show most of the phosphorus in Lake Diefenbaker is coming from Alberta, where they are not meeting reduction guidelines.

“There’s much more stringent guidelines from Saskatchewan flowing into Manitoba, there needs to be more work done with the government of Alberta,” Cheveldayoff explained.

He says the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency is already working with Alberta through the Prairie Provinces Water Board which overseas water security for all three provinces.

Cheveldayoff is also planning to raise the issue of phosphorus regulation at a national meeting for Ministers of the Environment this year.

“We’re going to be asking for some response within a reasonable period of time,” Cheveldayoff said.

Edited by CJME's Adriana Christianson