Watersheds Threatened by Logging, Developments and Pesticides

by Matthew Kemshaw 

In Canada, water is a non-issue. It is “abundant,” “renewable,” “fresh,” and flows preternaturally through our pipes: liquid life at almost no cost. It comes to most Canadians with such great flowing ease it almost seems as though nothing could ever interrupt its soothing, pure trickle. Water comes from the tap, and many of us are confident that it always will.  Liquid will always flow to our homes, but water certainly does not come from the tap. 

It comes from nature. From the land upon whichwe live. From the Earth. Clean water depends on a healthy home. Increasingly that home is being destroyed. 

Shawnigan Lake is a fi ne example of a community watershed threatened by an attitude of apathy which looks at the tap as water’s eternal home. Located some 45 km. north of Victoria on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, Shawnigan Lake is home to over 10,000 residents, many of whom draw upon the lake’s surface water to provide a lasting, clean source for all their watery needs. 

Shawnigan Lake is interesting because it lies very close to the Sooke Lake Reservoir which provides all of Greater Victoria with fresh, drinkable water.  While parts of the Sooke Lake watershed are owned by Victoria’s Capital Regional District (CRD), the Shawnigan Lake watershed is owned by a hodgepodge of local residents, forestry companies, and commercial interests. 

The result? Shawnigan Lake is increasingly being developed, logged, subdivided, and submerged under an unquenchable thirst for profi t.  In the last two years, the south end of the lake has gone from a relatively pristine area of mature second growth forest, to a landscape severed by the worst clearcut military barber ever visited. What were once continuous vistas of evergreen are now shattered scars of moving earth. Running amidst the terrifi c destruction is Shawnigan’s main artery, Shawnigan Creek.  

Quality Questions  

The effects on water quality of such rabid development amidst the most important water source for the lake are as yet unknown. Leaching sedimentation from soils freed from the roots of vanished trees tends to fi nd its way down the hillside and into the lake. Carried within this suspended sediment, a host of nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen create the perfect paradise for algae, leading to an increase in weed and algal growth in lake water. 

While periodic scientific testing of Shawnigan’s water quality has yielded fairly reassuring results concerning nutrient levels, closer analysis by people living on the lake reveal some disturbing trends. Mary Desmond of the Shawnigan Lake Watershed Watch (SLWW) group explained that detailed observations and monitoring done by SLWW highlighted a vast proliferation of weed growth in the lake over the last decade. Mary argues that studies which do not deal with weeds are like “going to the doctor with a rash, then getting a blood test which says that everything is fi ne. Okay,” she says, “but what about the rash?” 

Nutrient levels are not the only thing threatening community watershed health. An increasing threat on many lakes comes from development along the lake shore. “The Calcutta-like density conditions around this lake are simply squalid,” Mary so eloquently elaborated. “It’s gotten so bad, you can actually hear the people next door clearing their throats!” Increased human development in many watershed ecosystems can infl uence water health in several important ways. 

Bacteria like e.coli fi nd its way into water sources from malfunctioning waste treatment facilities. Chemical contamination from pesticides, fertilizers, vehicles, boats, lawnmowers, and mountains of other mechanized miracles pose incredibly serious, often unknown, problems for human and water health. Chemicals known as Disinfection By-Products (DBPs) are created in water treatment when organic contaminants (often introduced in the form of pesticides and fertilizers) react with chlorine to create new chemicals which recent studies are now showing to be carcinogens. Protozoans like giardia (Beaver Fever) and cryptosporidium increase when natural fi ltration from healthy ecosystems no longer exists. All these negative impacts upon water quality have corresponding negative impacts upon human health. 

A Plethora of Parties 

We simply cannot depend upon water treatment facilities to clean up our degraded water. Healthy, functioning ecosystems, where water can live a happy and healthy life, are the only insurance we have in the fi ght to maintain clean drinking water for generations to come. Regions such as Victoria recognize this fact and have acted to secure a watershed which can be protected from all the negatives human impact can have upon the land. Vancouver has acted similarly to protect its water by leasing two watersheds for 999 years. Where, then, does this leave the rest of us, not fortunate enough to live in large municipalities capable of raising the funds to secure a lasting source of safe water? 

The answer to this question, plainly, is in uncertainty. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act in British Columbia, end-use tap water is monitored by the Health Authority, which designates a drinking water offi cer to oversee every health region’s drinking water quality. Actual testing, however, is to be done by individual water suppliers, who are to report to the water offi cer if quality does not meet certain guidelines. Provincial Health Authority approved testing is done on treated water, neglects to look at nutrient levels, and focuses primarily upon bacterial content. 

Worse, the Health Authority has no concern with development. Decisions which affect water quality in the province are made by a diverse set of Ministries, including the Forestry, Transportation and Highways, Energy and Mines, and Environment Ministries. Each sector has a vital role to play in ensuring that water quality is maintained at the source. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of collaboration between Health and Forestry, and decisions made by the Forestry sector are almost never infl uenced by Health concerns over water. So unless you live in a large city which has been able to buy and protect the watershed from which its water is supplied, your drinking water will effectively have no voice fi ghting for it when its home is destroyed at the hands of economic intrigue. 

Many argue for the need to establish an overseeing body such as a Drinking Water Authority which could advise all concerned sectors on water issues and take a broader look at water quality than just end use analysis. Legislation for such a body has been drafted, but given how loathe the BC provincial government is to do anything environmental, concerned parties certainly are not holding their breath. 

A Home In Jeopardy

It must also be recognized that water quality is affected by more than treatment and that focusing only on technology will not save our clean, renewable water supply. While British Columbia certainly has a wealth of fresh water, we rank as the worst of all provinces for overall water quality. Our dependence upon resource extraction and our need for “economic development” have already begun to impede the fulfillment of more basic needs. Victoria and Vancouver both recognize the crucial value of protecting water at its source, while the rest of us tread cautiously amidst a lake of competing interests. It is in the interest of everyone to be able to turn on the tap and take a sip of life. Water, like humans, depends upon a clean and healthy home to maintain its health. This home is not in our taps, nor even in our wells or calm lakes. It is in the entire landscape situated above any water source. We all know that water fl ows. We have seen muddy puddles and dirty streams in places devoid of natural life. Water is a vital and functioning part of a healthy ecosystem. An ecosystem to which we all belong and must all respect if it is to provide us with the necessities of life.

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[From WS March/April 2006]

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