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From algae to fecal matter, trends show Lac La Biche Lake health is worsening

Visual assessments confirm moderate amounts of bird feces around the beach areas, say health officials

LAC LA BICHE – Informational displays presented by the Healthy Waters Lac La Biche during recent open house and speaker series events show an increase of phosphorus and other nutrients entering Lac La Biche Lake, and it is having undesirable consequences.  

“Everyone who lives here is aware of the concern about blue-green algae blooms. And, of course, we're seeing again right now,” said Brian Deheer, president of Healthy Waters Lac La Biche.  

In recent weeks, several areas of the community's namesake lake have also been sites of fecal contamination. Deheer said the role of the Healthy Waters group can serve as an important link between science, research, education and the community. He said the group corresponds with municipal leaders and provincial officials, offering information to community members about the health of the water bodies around them.

Explaining the reasons behind why he wanted to be involved with the local stewardship group, he said, “We live on a lake. So, there's an interest in keeping the lake healthy and trying to improve it.”  

On July 21, with more than a month of summer left to go, Alberta Health Services (AHS) put in place an advisory asking residents and visitors to take precautions when at Lac La Biche Lake. The advisory requests the public not wade or swim in the water were blue-green algae is visible, prevent pets and livestock from drinking the water and even cautioned individuals to consider limiting human consumption of whole fish and fish trimmings from Lac La Biche lake. Although it adds that people can safely consume fish fillets from the lake. 

Data made available during the an open house at the Owl River Recreational Centre a week ago reflected how the increase of phosphorus in the lake has led to the increased presence of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) blooms. The blooms can cause toxic blooms, a loss of oxygen in the water, other declines in water quality, and decrease the growth of aquatic plants that form a key part of fish habitat.  

These algae blooms were found to be far more prominent in the shallower east basin of Lac La Biche Lake, according to samples collected for the 2020 Lac La Biche East Basin Water Quality Report. 

“While 2020’s high water levels diluted the levels significantly, the overall trend shows that the phosphorus levels in Lac La Biche are dangerously high and continue to increase,” stated the informational poster presented at the open house.  

Deheer says after 30 years of living in Lac La Biche County, like other residents, he has grown to expect the presence of cyanobacteria every summer. However, other issues are raising concerns about the health and quality of the county’s bodies of water. 

“The issue with fecal matter — I don't know if that's been as frequent, but the fact that it's there now, and it has happened on previous occasions is also a serious concern,” he said. 

List of advisories grow 

Before and after the second Healthy Waters event, AHS sent out advisories warning the public not to swim at four beaches located along Lac La Biche Lake, which included Camper’s Beach, McArthur Beach, McGrane Beach, and most recently Golden Sands Beach.  

All advisories stated there were elevated levels of fecal bacteria in the lake water at each of the beach locations. At current levels, ingestion of the water at these areas could cause gastrointestinal illness. 

According to Logan Clow, a senior communications advisor for AHS, “AHS Environmental Public Health, with assistance from the beach operator, conducted water testing and a visual on-site assessment at (McArthur and McGrane) beaches. Sampling results indicated unsatisfactory water quality levels. Visual assessments also confirmed moderate amounts of bird feces around the beach areas.”   

Although AHS did not confirm if it was the presence human or animal feces that triggered the advisory or where the fecal matter is thought to originate from, Clow added, “Testing for Enterococcus (fecal bacteria) is one of the ways beach operators and AHS monitor the safety of recreational water.” 

However, the presence of fecal matter is not overly surprising as information presented in Owl River pointed to the likelihood of septic leakage into the lake. 

“While a small amount of eutrophication (excessive nutrient richness) happens naturally over geologic time, the increases that we see in Lac La Biche in recent decades are much too high to be natural. Phosphorus is very high within sewage, manure, and fertilizers, so a significant amount has likely come from sewage being deposited into the lake, either directly from sewage treatment or by leaching from nearby septic systems,” stated the Healthy Waters information report. 

It continued, “Another indicator showing human nutrients are entering the water system was the finding of caffeine. Caffeine is only present in waterbodies where human sewage is present, and a 2003/2004 study found caffeine coming in from several areas around Lac La Biche.” 

Discussing the unfortunate and, to some extent, preventable presence of water contaminants in Lac La Biche Lake, Deheer said, “Those are two issues that both lead to the lake not being safe for swimming and everyone who lives in the community values the lake. We want to be able to swim in the lake and we want to have a healthy lake to swim in.” 


LLB HealthyWatersPhosgraph

Figure 1: Historical trend of total phosphorus in the East Basin of Lac La Biche. From R. Dupras and K. Lein. 2020 Lac La Biche East Basin Water Quality Report. Unpublished report prepared for Lac La Biche County, AB. 

Figure 2: Historical trend of total phosphorus in the West Basin of Lac La Biche. From R. Dupras and K. Lein. 2020 Lac La Biche West Basin Water Quality Report. Unpublished report prepared for Lac La Biche County, AB. 

What can be done? 

With trends heading in the wrong direction, Deheer still has hope for the future of the region's lakes. “Anything that anyone does to reduce nutrients going into the lake will help. That's really the biggest action that various individuals and organizations can take — is reduce the nutrient inputs into the lake.” 

Through the Healthy Waters Lac La Biche speaker's series, experts in the fields of biology, agriculture and riparian habitat management have shared how individuals, groups and municipalities can improve stewardship practices along shorelines, rivers, lakes and watershed. 

Much of the focus has been toward repairing and maintaining riparian areas, which Deheer describes as the zone of vegetation that borders lakes, streams and wetlands. It straddles the area between the water and land, including reeds along the shoreline and foliage where the ground is still low and the soil may still be wet. These areas, he says, act as a buffer that filter nutrients in runoff before they enter the water. 

However, damage to these ecological areas is ongoing, with Young’s Beach being the most recent example of human activity and motor vehicles negatively impacting the health of the riparian zones and environmental reserves. 

“We certainly have a huge challenge in making the connection between the conditions that everybody sees, that we all recognize, and our efforts to try and do things to help the situation to improve the lake health,” he said “That's the core of the issue that we're trying to address with these open houses.” 

Healthy Waters Lac La Biche will host two more open houses as part from their speaker series.  

On Sept.1 the Hylo/Venice Agriplex will host an event with talks from Kristen Anderson, a wetland scientist and restoration ecologist, and Kellie Nichiporik, an Environmental Program manager from Lakeland Agriculture Research Association.  

On Oct. 6 Craigend Hall with host the final open house and speaker series event with presentations by Alberta Lake Management Society (ALMS) and Lakeland Industry and Community Association (LICA).  Individuals can also tune in online to watch presentations.  

Both events are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. 

Jazmin Tremblay

About the Author: Jazmin Tremblay

Jazmin completed a minor in journalism at Hanze University in the Netherlands and completed her Communication Studies degree from MacEwan University with a major in journalism.
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