On a hot steamy night more than 150 Dartmouth residents turned up at a “Save Our Lakes” meeting hosted by Claudia Chender and Susan Leblanc, the representatives for Dartmouth South and Dartmouth North in the legislature.
Top among the concerns expressed at the Micmac Aquatic Club last night is the fact that no level of government is taking charge to monitor water quality which is deteriorating as a result of several factors, including climate change and siltation from stormwater runoff triggered by new subdivisions and commercial developments.
Bottom line: citizens want immediate action and a shared commitment from both the city and the province to restore and protect Dartmouth lakes.
For waterfront owners along Lake Micmac and Morris Lake, the presence of blue-green algae blooms that can be lethal for dogs and affect human health has curtailed summer swimming and is likely to affect property values. (Experts say once a bloom has appeared, the probability is high it will re-appear)
On Lake Banook, public beaches are shut down for weeks each summer due to e.coli contamination, while weed-whacking machines struggle to control the growth of underwater vegetation that can entangle rudders. The weeds threaten the viability of the one-kilometre race course to host international events such as the North American Indigenous Games in 2020 and the World Canoe Kayak Championships in 2022, which are also economic boons for the province.
On Albro Lake, residents have been contending with an invasive nuisance called floating yellow heart since 2007.
“Our frustration is that government is not taking action,” said Norman Steele, a lifetime Dartmouth resident, paddler, and long-time volunteer with the Portland Estates and Portland Hills Residents Association. “I feel there is a lack of resources and lack of responsibility to help save Dartmouth’s lakes.”
As part of his presentation, Steele showed slides of silt going into stormwater drains from a construction site near Russell Lake West. Developers are required to provide containment booms and holding ponds but more frequent storms can drive silt and nutrients such as phosphorus as runoff into Dartmouth’s 22 lakes. Steele believes “poor land use planning is the biggest problem turning the lakes into a storm drainage system which accelerates weed growth and algae blooms.”
Climate change isn’t helping. So-called “once in 100 years” storms used to be categorized as those delivering 90 mm of rain in 24 hours but in the past few years HRM has received 90 mm of rain in just eight hours, stressing stormwater containment systems.
That’s not the only factor — rising water temperatures and increased light as result of fewer trees required as buffer zones may also be amping up vegetation growth. But what really frustrates Steele (and others in the audience who nodded and groaned in agreement) is the buck-passing reaction from government authorities. Here’s how Steele described the response he got when he called to report the emergence of a blue-green algae bloom on Morris Lake:
HRM said lakes are not our responsibility; they are a provincial responsibility. When I called the Nova Scotia Department of the Environment, the person I spoke to said the department had no specific expertise or knowledge of how to deal with lake weeds, that I should check with HRM.
This is the crux of the problem. And it’s the reason why no level of government has taken leadership when it comes to protecting freshwater lakes in the province.
Bob Rutherford worked 31 years for the Bedford Institute of Oceanography as an aquatic biologist. He’s a key volunteer with the Oat Hill Lake Neighbourhood Association. Rutherford says there is “a lack of operational policy” when it comes to monitoring water quality or protecting freshwater lakes. He notes that while the federal government has authority to protect the fish, the provincial government is responsible for protecting the waterways and it has jurisdiction for the Dartmouth lakes.
“Under its charter, the Halifax Regional Municipality is limited in what it can do to protect the lakes,” Rutherford told the audience. “It can regulate development on land and it can handle a lot of the stormwater issues.”
Rutherford observed that neither the province nor the city presently have enough staff to monitor lakes or deal with complaints about lack of enforcement when it comes to stormwater runoff. The Department of Environment takes water samples from just 10 lakes around the province. Rutherford said cutbacks to the Department of Environment mean there are too few inspectors with too little training.
The Minister of Environment did not attend the meeting but has committed to meet with the two NDP members who hosted the community session.
The city has one water resources specialist, Cameron Deacoff, who attended last night’s meeting and is itching to secure funding to establish a water monitoring program on Lake Banook. The province could use the Municipal Governance Act to empower HRM to protect the Dartmouth lakes but the municipality is unlikely to shoulder that without some cash from the province.
“The province should authorize the municipality to take it on,” suggested Walter Regan, the president of the Sackville Rivers Association who fought for years to clean up that river and bring salmon back, “and everyone else get out of town.”
So far, HRM has taken limited actions to address an issue which Dartmouth South MLA Chender described as “threatening the heart of the city.” District 5 Councillor Sam Austin said “lake monitoring is something that cries out for help from a provincial partner.” He said HRM will have the results this fall of a pollution control study it carried out last summer (the polar ice caps are melting faster than these studies can be published) and that the municipality will continue to pay for weeding Lake Banook. It will undertake a pilot project next summer using mats to try and suppress floating yellow-heart plants at Little Albro Lake.
Meanwhile, here are a few post-it note suggestions from citizens at the meeting who also signed a petition demanding elected government officials at the provincial and municipal level step up and assume responsibility for an environmental and recreational asset that needs some love.
• Provide constant monitoring of water quality and vegetation in Dartmouth lakes
• HRM must enforce existing regulations on stormwater and land use
• Provide money to hire more field inspectors.