Water: The Stuff of Life

by Theresa Peluso

pakenham  falls
Mississippi River at Pakenham

Without clean water, there is no life. Clean water is not necessarily pure water, which is composed solely of hydrogen and oxygen molecules. In nature, water always contains traces of other elements, and in fact, is known as the universal solvent because it dissolves more substances than any other liquid. This characteristic enables water to provide valuable nutrients to living things, but can also be a drawback. The fact that water is such an effective solvent contributes to the trouble we have in keeping it clean.

Water pollution is a serious problem for many countries and water bodies in the world. Canada, with its relatively small population and vast network of rivers and lakes, would be expected to rank high on the list of countries for clean water. The Conference Board in Canada (http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/environment/water-quality-index.aspx) in 2013 ranked Canada 4th out of 17 peer OECD counties for water quality. Sweden, Norway and Austria ranked ahead of our country. Belgium and Australia ranked at the bottom.

In Canada, the greatest amount of water pollution occurs in the south, with its denser population and higher number of industrial activities. More remote areas don’t escape unscathed, however, if they are being exploited for oil, metals, and lumber. As a result of the effluent from these industries, water in these remote areas can contain concentrations of toxic materials, such as arsenic, sulphuric acid, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lead, zinc, copper, chlorates, and organochlorine compounds. The industrial effluent often also contains excess nitrogen and phosphorus, and this can cause or increase eutrophication (encouragement of algal growth, which blocks sunlight as it spreads, and then removes oxygen from the water when it decomposes, killing living organisms such as fish).

In addition to excess nutrients and toxic materials, water quality can be affected by pathogens (disease-causing bacteria, usually originating from the disposal of improperly treated human or animal waste), biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) (organic wastes, such as sewage and the effluent from pulp and paper mills, which deplete the water of oxygen as they decay), acidification (caused by run-off from rain and snow that is contaminated with sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted by industries and vehicles), and heat (which is harmful to many aquatic species and also accelerates the decay of organic matter).

As explained in The Canadian Encyclopedia: Water Pollution (published in 2006, and updated this year), “Canada’s rich endowment of fresh and marine waters is threatened by regional shortages (e.g., in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta) and by pollution. Although pollution from pathogens, toxicants, BOD, nutrients, acidification and waste heat may be prevented and relatively easily reversed, eutrophication and oil spills are more difficult, and acidification and toxicity may be irreversible.” (www.thecanadian encyclopedia.ca/en/article/water-pollution/)

The last, but certainly not least, cause of water pollution is the proliferation of plastic debris. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) (http://www.nrdc.org/oceans/plastic-ocean/), one of the U.S.’s most powerful environmental groups, explains that:

Around 80 percent of marine litter originates on land, and most of that is plastic. Plastic that pollutes our oceans and waterways has severe impacts on our environment and our economy. Seabirds, whales, sea turtles and other marine life are eating marine plastic pollution and dying from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation.…Plastic pollution affects every waterway, sea and ocean in the world. When we damage our water systems, we’re putting our own well-being at risk….The most effective way to stop plastic pollution in our oceans is to make sure it never reaches the water in the first place. We all need to do our fair share to stop plastic pollution: individuals need to recycle and never litter, but producers of single-use plastic packaging need to do more too. We need producers to design packaging so that it is fully recyclable, and so there is less waste. We also need producers to help cover the costs of keeping their products out of the ocean. (end of quote)

One especially harmful source of plastic is cosmetics. Plastic microbeads can be found in exfoliating creams and some toothpastes. According to Wikipedia:

Microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products are washed down the drain after use, entering the sewer system before making their way into rivers and canals. From there, they can easily end up in seas and oceans, contributing to the issue known as the plastic soup. In 2009 researchers at the University of Auckland published an article which shows that microbeads pass into household waste water streams directly and are not filtered out at sewage treatment plants.

Plastic microbeads found in exfoliating personal care products and toothpastes are polluting the Great Lakes. Recent research published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, a peer-reviewed journal, found high concentrations of plastics in U.S. lakes, particularly Lake Erie. Microbeads accounted for 90 percent of these plastics. Microbeads are designed to be small enough to wash down the drain, but they are not caught by sewage treatment, instead flowing into waterways. (taken from article on “Microbeads”)

A more indirect cause of water pollution is the destruction of forests, wetlands, and shorelines, which all play a role in filtering water and retaining moisture and soil nutrients. This decreases the amount of pollutant-laden run-off, flooding, and siltation (the pollution of water by fine particles of silt or clay).

To learn about the many aspects of water in Lanark County – its history and use (and misuse) during the last 200 years, current concerns and future challenges – please read my favourite reference for information on our county’s natural resources: A Place in Time: The Natural Resources of Lanark County. This document, produced by the Community Stewardship Council of Lanark County in 2008, and researched, written and designed by Susan Sentesy, is available at http://lanarkstewardshipcouncil.ca/. Here are the salient points.

Until the arrival of the European settlers, the First Nations people enjoyed an abundance of free-flowing, pristine rivers, lakes and forests teeming with life. Gradually most of the forests were cut down or burned, dams and canals were built, streams were altered, wetlands were drained, non-native species were introduced, and the water was polluted with sewage, fertilizers and agricultural run-off.

The Conservation Authorities Act was created by the Ontario Provincial Legislature in 1946 in response to public concern about the state of the natural environment in Canada as a result of poor land, water, and forestry practices, as well as erosion and drought concerns. Our county now has two conservation authorities, the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority and the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, mandated by the provincial government to manage its two main watersheds. In the far north of Lanark County is a portion of the Madawaska River watershed, managed by the Madawaska Valley Conservation Authority in Renfrew County.

The water from these watersheds drains into the Ottawa River by means of the Rideau, Mississippi and Madawaska rivers. The mandate of the conservation authorities is to provide flood forecasting and warning, manage water levels, prevent dangerous development, monitor the health of our lakes and rivers, and conserve and restore areas of natural significance. Conservation authorities use a watershed approach to manage water and natural resources in their regions, and follow an integrated watershed management approach to balance human, environmental and economic needs.

Following the tragedy in 2000 in Walkerton, Ontario, in which contamination of the water supply by e coli bacteria resulted in 7 deaths and over 1,000 people becoming severely ill, the Clean Water Act was passed in 2006, to ensure that communities in Ontario are better able to protect their municipal drinking-water supplies from contamination and overuse through locally developed source-protection plans.

In 2012 the Town of Mississippi Mills completed construction of a new wastewater treatment plant on the site of their former wastewater lagoons. This was done to accommodate predicted growth in the town of Almonte, to provide an environmentally responsible treatment alternative for septage materials from private septic systems in the municipality, to meet provincial water-quality requirements for effluent discharges into the Mississippi River, and to resolve health and safety concerns about the structural integrity of the sewage lagoons, where Almonte’s sewage was originally stored.

Our drinking water is also protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 2002, which requires that regular testing meets stringent provincial standards. The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit is responsible for this testing. In 2003 Almonte’s municipal-wells system underwent a Wellhead Protection Study to determine any groundwater threats, another aspect of source protection planning.

For people with private wells, the Eastern Ontario Health Unit offers free water testing, and recommends that wells be tested for bacteria at least three times a year. Landowners are responsible for plugging abandoned wells. Unplugged wells can allow contaminants to flow directly into the groundwater supply and pollute other private wells.

As mentioned earlier in this article, human and animal wastes are significant pollutants. Residential septic systems are approved and regulated under the Building Code Act. Septic-system installers must be licensed by the province. Since the Nutrients Management Act was passed in 2002, it is not permitted to spread untreated septage on farmers’ fields because of the environmental damage when sewage sludge washes into waterways.

The conservation authorities also help to protect fish habitat by regulating how the shorelines of waterfront properties are altered by landowners. The Mississippi Mills Community Official Plan, passed in 2005 and in the process of being updated, protects shorelines, as well as provincially significant wetlands from development.

Last but not least, especially for people who draw their water from a private well, is the issue of groundwater protection. Here is a short description from A Place in Time: The Natural Resources of Lanark County:

Most of the globe’s fresh water can be found under the ground within 100 metres of the earth’s surface. Most groundwater is found in aquifers – layers of porous rock or sediment that are replenished by rainfall or seepage from streams. More than 65 per cent of Lanark County has a very shallow area of material overlying the bedrock, making the groundwater relatively close to the surface. This can cause groundwater to be more vulnerable to contamination. At the time of writing, 61 per cent of the residents of Lanark County rely on groundwater for their drinking water. The most common threats to groundwater are contamination by human waste from leaking septic systems, by animal waste from manure management and by inappropriate separation between contaminant sources and wells. Not all forms of contamination are treatable due to the wide variety of chemical compounds that make their way into our watercourses. The Clean Water Act (2006) now requires communities to conduct groundwater studies for their source-protection plans. (end of quote)

Last year Ontario approved the Mississippi-Rideau Source Protection Plan, which took effect in January of this year. (The Lanark County Sustainable Communities Official Plan is in the process of being amended to include this plan.) This plan is designed to protect the water quality of the lakes, rivers and sources of underground water that supply municipal drinking water systems. Under the plan, Mississippi-Rideau conservation authorities will: establish maintenance and inspection programs for septic systems to meet Building Code requirements; create risk-management plans for handling and storing pesticides, fuel and manure, as well as for existing waste sites and storm water facilities; and identify wellhead protection areas and intake protection zones by means of road signs.

Surface-water protection is another concern. Both run-off (the result of precipitation) and base flow (which enters streams from groundwater) are monitored and tested by the conservation authorities within their watersheds.

Water levels are another consideration. They are affected by the amount of precipitation and the rate of snow melt in the spring. With the advent of climate change and the resulting extreme weather events, this can be problematic. Both extremely high and extremely low levels can create problems for people and wildlife. To manage this, in the Mississippi watershed, the conservation authority holds flood storage in six large lakes, and releases the water as required.

Finally, the water quality of our local beaches is tested weekly by the health unit for excessive levels of E. coli bacteria from June to September. The health unit also checks for the presence of any blue-green algae blooms, poor water quality and any accidental spills of pollution.

Despite all these safeguards, water quality problems still arise. The Village of Lanark, which is serviced entirely by private wells and private sewage disposal systems, has experienced failures for the last 50 years that are risking the quality of the groundwater. Despite diligent efforts to correct the problem, as of April 2012, 30 percent of households still needed to boil their tap water before using it.

In March 2000 Beckwith Township discovered the existence of volatile organic compounds in the groundwater resulting from chemicals that had leached from an abandoned municipal landfill. For 30 years before that, the contamination had spread 9 kilometres into a nearby marsh, the Jock River and into the drinking water of more than 240 homes.

More recently, in a news item published on October 7, 2014 by the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority (http://mvc.on.ca/algae-blooms-confirmed-on-local-lakes/), it was reported that:

Recent warm summer weather and low wind conditions combined to create unusual algae blooms on Dalhousie and Mississippi Lakes this September. The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) has tested the water and visually confirmed a blue-green algae growth in both lakes. Lab results are still pending (as of 10/7)….Many different species of algae…naturally inhabit our waterways. An overabundance of sunshine, warmth, and nutrients all of which promote algae growth can result in a bloom….Reports from both lakes indicate that the blooms are dissipating, causing murky conditions both in the lake and downstream. However, once the bloom has passed, the toxic results from its decomposition may remain in the water….If you spot it, take a cautious approach, as some varieties of these algae can produce toxins that are harmful to both humans and animals. Avoid using, drinking, bathing or swimming in the water….Restrict pet and livestock access to the water. Home treatment systems may not remove toxins and can get easily overwhelmed or clogged….Do not boil the water, or manually treat the water with chlorine or other disinfectants, as this could increase the toxin levels. (end of quote)

Now that we know how easily water can be contaminated, how can we assist the local authorities in protecting it? To prevent erosion, we must not alter the course of streams. We can restore shorelines where possible with a buffer of healthy, native vegetation, and not build permanent structures. The Nutrient Management Act (2002) explains how to prevent excess nutrients from chemical fertilizers and manure spread on agricultural lands from contaminating groundwater. Cattle must be kept away from streams and rivers by fencing them in. Residents need to use organic fertilizers and biologically-friendly pest- and weed-management controls. On farms or commercial facilities, we can minimize or avoid using non-organic fertilizers and pesticides, plant cover crops and reduce tillage of fields, and plant buffer strips between our land and adjacent waterways. Well owners should check the water quality every three months. In general: We need to modify our consumption habits to minimize use of plastics, chemical cleaners, and non-organic fertilizers. Use only phosphate-free soaps and detergents. Don’t even think of flushing medications and toxic chemicals down the toilet – dispose of them appropriately at the Hazardous Waste Depot or use the local pharmacy’s Take-It-Back program. Minimizing our use of water not only helps to keep it clean, but also has positive effects on our utility bills.

There are numerous resources to help us to be good stewards of our land. As explained in A Place in Time: The Natural Resources of Lanark County:

The Rural Clean Water Program, sponsored by RVCA, works to protect surface and groundwater quality by offering incentive grants and technical assistance to farmers and rural landowners within the watershed. Projects may include septic system repair, shoreline planting, erosion control, livestock fencing, alternate watering, small stream crossings and runoff control, including the construction of wetlands and flow diversions.

Well-Upgrade Grants are also available to rural landowners as part of the Rideau Valley Rural Clean Water Program to help protect their drinking-water supplies. The grants will cover up to 50 per cent of eligible costs to a maximum of $500 or up to 75 per cent for the decommissioning of old wells. The type of projects covered include grading or seeding of the area around wells, installation of well-head caps, water testing, extension of well casings, sealing of abandoned wells and the installation of pitless adapters, which help to protect mechanisms from frost.

The Lake Partner Program is offered by the MOE, which partners with waterfront residents to evaluate the nutrient status of our lakes. The MOE provides sampling kits to volunteers, who take water samples for total phosphorus analysis and measure water clarity using a Secchi disc. A Secchi disc is an instrument used to measure how deep a person can see into the water. High levels of phosphorus can lead to algae blooms that have been appearing in some Lanark County lakes. By sampling total phosphorus each year, trends can be detected early. Water samples are then mailed back in a prepaid box. To volunteer or to find out if your lake is participating call 1-800-470-8322.

The Landowner Advisory Services Program is now being offered by MVC to landowners seeking professional advice on a variety of land-use topics, including wetlands, forests and wildlife habitat. Owners of properties exceeding two hectares (five acres) are eligible for consultation visits. Written assessments are provided as guides to landowners and provide options and referrals to local services.

The Landowner Resource Centre provides a variety of fact sheets about water and wetlands. These Extension Notes are available from 1- 800-267-3504 or may be accessed online at www.lrconline.com. (end of quote)

Water is essential to life, and a gift we must cherish for our survival and the health of our planet. It really is the stuff of life, and once it’s polluted or depleted, it’s gone.