Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Better Planning Needed to Minimize Risks to Drinking Water

Earlier this month, officials in Toledo, Ohio issued an urgent plea for residents to stop drinking the City’s water. 400,000 residents went without tap water for several days because a massive blue-green algae bloom in Lake Erie had contaminated the municipal water supply with microcystin, a toxic by-product of blue-green algal blooms (see, "Toledo water improving by toxins still a concern for 2nd day", CBC, August 2, 2014).

A combination of warm temperatures and human inputs of phosphorus and nitrogen, mostly in the form of agricultural surface runoff, created a dangerous pea soup out of western Lake Erie.

Here in Northern Ontario, we don’t have the same issues with agricultural runoff as do farming-centred communities around the southern Great Lakes. Yet, blue-green algae is a persistent problem in many of our water bodies. Greater Sudbury’s jewel, Ramsey Lake, one of the City’s major drinking water sources, recently had its recreational beaches closed due to algae.

While algal blooms occur naturally, two factors in Northern Ontario are exacerbating their presence: increased urbanization, and a warming climate.

Storm water runoff from hard surfaces like parking lots and roads flows more swiftly into receiving water bodies. This runoff carries contaminants like motor oil and road salt, along with nutrients like phosphorus. The cumulative impacts from urbanization are the most serious threat to the health of our lakes.

As waters warm, these additional nutrients create a feast for blue-green algae. With a changing climate, our lakes are beginning to warm earlier in the year, and are staying warmer for longer periods, creating more opportunities for algae to bloom.

Closed beaches are merely a summertime nuisance. The disruption of a municipal drinking water supply, as happened in Toledo, is a clear and present risk to human health.

The City of Greater Sudbury took a proactive step in 2012, passing a by-law regulating the application of phosphorus fertilizers on residential lawns. However, additional measures to help minimize risks have proceeded slowly. The City’s Official Plan, adopted in 2005, calls for the development of watershed studies to better direct urban growth. Funding was allocated for a Ramsey Lake watershed study only in 2013 (see: "Watershed study applauded", the Sudbury Star, May 21, 2013), and completion of that study remains years away.

Conservation Sudbury’s Source Protection Plan has yet to be approved by the Ministry of Environment, despite being a requirement of the Clean Water Act, 2006, which was the province’s response to the Walkerton drinking water disaster.

We know how to minimize the risks to our lakes. Natural and human-made storm water treatment can positively impact both the quality and the quantity of water, better filtering contaminants and slowing runoff before entering water bodies.

Doing things right the first time may add some initial costs to development, but it will save taxpayers money in the longer term. Here in Greater Sudbury, the Vale Living With Lakes Centre has a great example of a natural storm water filtration system designed as integral component of the facility. Permeable lockstone in the parking lot permits water to be absorbed more easily by the ground. A bioswale, essentially a ditch with native vegetation, slows and directs runoff towards a collecting pond, where additional filtering occurs before it ends up in Ramsey Lake.

In many cities, bioswales are being considered as elements of integrated transportation and storm water management systems at the time of new road construction, as the installation of remedial storm water infrastructure after development occurs can be expensive.

Planning ahead to address known cumulative impacts in high-risk areas will improve the water quality of our lakes. When it comes to protecting our drinking water sources, we can’t afford to keep pursuing a business-as-usual approach when the underlying circumstances are being constantly altered due to increased urbanization and climate change.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, August 16, 2014 online as "May: Planning needed to protect water", without hyperlinks)

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