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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Lake pollution lower - great news finally!

Lake pollution lower


Lake Simcoe environmentalists are in shock after a scientist with the ministry of the environment said phosphorus, long considered the major cause of water quality and lake weed problems, has been measured in much lower levels than previously believed.

In addition, cold water fish species are actually recovering.

Wolfgang Scheider, the manager of the MOE's biomonitoring section, told a recent conference of the Lake Simcoe Environmental Strategy (LSEMS) in Barrie, that phosphorus levels were measured at an average of 67 tonnes annually, not the average 102 tonnes long thought to be entering the lake.

Environmentalists and the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority have been fighting to have the level of phosphorus lowered to 75 tonnes – believed to be the level at which the lake could recover.

Dr. Jack Macdonald, a scientist and former president of the University of British Columbia, said he was surprised by the new information.

“It came unexpectantly without any warning,” he said. Macdonald, who was present at the conference when Scheider presented his findings, said the report leaves many questions.

“I think the primary question to begin with is the reliability of the data. I think, first of all, we need to see the scientific papers and the methods they used.”

Macdonald said it is essential the findings receive an independent peer review before they can be considered valid. He cautioned phosphorus levels have fluctuated many times over the years, from highs of 156 tonnes to lows of 85 tonnes.

A strong advocate of reducing phosphorus pollution, Macdonald said the new figures should have been shared before the meeting. “I think it's an embarrassment to everyone involved. I felt embarrassed by it. I've been arguing for the 75 tonnes when in fact they say they have already bettered the target.”

Macdonald said the MOE must have known for some time about the new information but didn't share it, even while phosphorus-reducing programs like the Wave were gaining increased public support.

“I think it reflects on the credibility of the government departments, the conservation authority, LSEMS and advocacy organizations like the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition,” he said.

Gayle Wood, the CEO of the Lake Simcoe Conservation Authority and chairperson of the LSEMS steering committee, said she didn't have advance knowledge of the new findings.

“No, the analysis of the phosphorus loads are done by the ministry of the environment and we had certainly discussed with our provincial partner that we did have concerns about how long it was taking to get us the loading information.

"I didn't just see the data on the day of the conference. I did see the data I think a week or two before the conference, but I didn't get a chance to review it before that.”

She said the 102-tonne levels were based on figures used prior to 1998. “We always made that quite clear,” Wood said. The latest study takes measurements from then to 2004. Wood said the lower phosphorus readings are a “cause for some celebration. I think we were all surprised. I think people were hoping (the figures) would have gone down, but were surprised at how much they had gone down.”

She said “we've been really focusing for the last 15 years on both urban and rural projects to reduce phosphorus loads, so if the load hadn't gone down, I would really have been concerned.

"What's changed since 1998? Number one, we've spent $8 million on projects to reduce phosphorus loads. There have been over 600 projects done.”

She said sewage treatment plant upgrades in Barrie and the Willow Beach water and sewer project, have also contributed to the lower numbers.

Wood said indications of better water quality began to be seen last year when ministry of natural resources scientists reported indications lake trout were beginning to reproduce naturally for the first time in three decades.

“The oxygen levels in the lake look like they're going up as well,” she said, explaining these conditions were observed in the lake and not close to shore, where aquatic weeds continue to proliferate. “The weeds are still there. We need to spend more time in the future, focusing on near-shore problems,” she said, adding, while conditions appear to be improving in the deeper water of the lake, “the near shore is still deteriorating.”

Wood said that means environmental groups like the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and its Wave program, are still vitally important. “This is good news, but we have to be vigilant. We haven't won the battle yet,” she said.

Wood said there is a climactic component to the new findings as well, with rainfall levels lower since 1998, meaning less phosphorus was being flushed into the lake. Scientists suspect global warming, she said. Wood said the Scheider report, considered a draft, is being peer reviewed and is expected to be published in January.

Wave founder Annabel Slaight said she is angry the information wasn't shared before the bombshell was dropped at the Barrie conference. As a result of the findings, Slaight said she has asked that the televised

Wave public service announcements be pulled. “It would appear that the information contained in those public service announcements, even though they were approved in June by the conservation authority, may contain erroneous information,” she said.

The Wave Minutes announcements included a clip of the Georgina students standing next to a 10-tonne truck symbolizing the 10 truckloads of phosphorus believed at that time to be going into the lake.

Slaight said she is upset. “LSEMS has withheld this vital information, even though it seems to have been around for a while. We're deeply disturbed not to have been informed of this new research; they knew and were applauding the fact we were presenting this message.

“It's shocking they would let people go on talking about information they have been measuring for six years.”

After the major successes enjoyed by The Wave this year with fund-raising projects like the popular Ladies of the Lake calendar, Slaight said the program is going to be re-examined in light of the new information.

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