Science helps inform better water quality management decisions
90% of Canadians believe that water management decisions should be better informed by science according to an 2016 RBC Canadian Water Attitudes Study. We also know from the study, that “nine in ten Canadians (92%) think that developing stricter rules and standards to manage water use by industry and municipalities is the best way that Canada can protect and manage fresh water better.”Often there is a disconnect. On water quality, if every municipality and community is measuring things differently, and trying to analyze results without historical grounding, then the results are not underpinned by scientific process and their value is very limited.There are two key ways that Georgian Bay Forever is helping bring scientific process and efficiency to water quality testing:
Working with partners and municipalities to standardize protocols in eastern Georgian Bay
Building on Georgian Bay Forever's water quality monitoring work with the Township of Georgian Bay, GBF is continuing its two-year partnership project with the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve and other key partners to harmonize water-testing protocols across the Bay.This work will help us to provide Township and cottage association volunteers with standardized tools to track water quality data in a similar and comparative manner to better inform water quality research and government decision-making. These tools will replace the more than 15 different water quality-monitoring programs currently in use on the eastern side of the Bay, which make scientific comparisons between regions challenging.
What kind of problems can arise that standardized protocols can address?Here are some examples of water quality issues and the potential inefficiencies in testing:
Example 1: Nutrient overload (eg. Phosphorus) is a concern because it could potentially lead to non-drinkable and non-swimmable areas.Potential Inefficiencies:
- There could be non-productive testing going on in areas that aren’t worth testing because the water is far from stressors. For example, it would likely not be useful to take samples way out in the more open water instead of nearer to shore where there is more possible impacts due to human development and less dilution.
- Duplication of effort. There could be multiple organizations testing for the same thing in the same area as happened in the past with the Georgian Bay Township. Prior to protocols being established, all these organizations were doing water testing in the North Bay of Honey Harbour: District of Muskoka, Severn Sound Environmental Association, Georgian Bay Forever, and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (OMOE) Now each has a specific role.
- The wrong tests in the wrong area with the wrong resource. Are there gaps? Phosphorus monitoring can help illustrate this point. The consortium of scientific partners working on this issue in eastern Georgian Bay have agreed that phosphorus can be measured by volunteers – Citizen Scientists - through the Lake Partner Program (further info and registration).But analyzing those results, and being able to determine if there are concerns for that area is best done by experts for these reasons:
- o High levels of phosphorus are linked to the development of nuisance algae and/or algal blooms; which can sometimes be toxic for animals and humans, render areas unusable for recreational purposes like swimming, and block off sunlight necessary for the proper growth of other aquatic plant life.
o Low levels of phosphorus are being investigated to see if there is a link to invasive species like quagga mussels, which may be absorbing too many nutrients and impairing the normal ecosystem food chain.
o This is further complicated by the fact that acceptable phosphorus concentrations will vary depending on water depth and flow, and tend to be higher near shore. Georgian Bay levels of phosphorus are quite low, but well within acceptable limits. However, changing conditions require monitoring. The raw data needs proper evaluation and interpretation by experts.
o GBF, The Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve and the other partners evaluate the tested regions regularly and develop a scorecard for participating regions in the Bay
Example 2: Testing for harmful bacteria.Bacteria testing done in inland lakes needs a systematic approach and qualified testers.Many organizations and volunteers have done this in the past, and maybe continuing to do so. According to a Hutchinson Environmental Sciences Ltd. (Hutchinson) report that GBF supported, this kind of monitoring is ineffective because single samples taken from one point at one time can be misleading. Citizen volunteers and organizations are encouraged to concentrate efforts on phosphorus measurements and monitoring through the Lake Partner program (to get involved, contact the Lake Partner Program ), and turn to scientific organizations to monitor bacteria over time if needed. Here's why:
- Human pathogens in fecal contamination (sewage) can have serious health risks, but some past protocols might yield false positives either dis-allowing people to swim on a certain non-contaminated day or vice versa – all to do with the timing of when the sample was taken. In effect, old sampling techniques or poorly performed inconsistent and one-off sampling, do not have the ability to identify whether the source is human, animal, or part of the normal ecosystem.
- Bacterial Microbial Source Tracking, first used by GBF with the Georgian Bay Township is an efficient tracking mechanism tool. It can identify the source of bacteria and therefore aid in management action which can differ depending on the source. For instance, if the contamination is geese, the situation may be resolved through shoreline rehabilitation and less grass verses if the source was human where new septic policy and actions might be required.
- One example of scientific testing of bacteria is the DNA based microbial source tracking GBF organized for the Township of Georgian Bay. The report called, Modifications and findings of the Township of Georgian Bay Coastal Monitoring Program , indicated the Township was well within safe limits - excellent for recreational purposes.
Championing new scientific tools for more efficient analysis and better decision making
Georgian Bay Forever continuously looks for novel opportunities to use new and emerging scientific methods to demonstrate how they could benefit society in the future. In water quality testing, here are tools that Georgian Bay Forever pioneered in the region that will be useful for municipalities to employ as needed.
Paleolimnologic StudiesTo understand the seriousness of water quality problems, you’ve got to study the past. Georgian Bay Forever supported the paleolimnologic studies in the North and South Bays in the Honey Harbour area. What is paleolimnology? It is the archeological examination of lake sediments to reconstruct past environmental conditions. Sediments provide a history of long-term trends in water quality, algal and aquatic plant abundance, and community composition. By cross-referencing these factors against what we know of more recent human activities, water level and climate changes, scientists will have a better chance of determining the area’s water quality. Where has GBF supported these studies? The paleolimnological studies were conducted in the North and South Bays of Honey Harbour to show historic water quality, water levels and temperatures by analyzing fossils in freshwater sediments that have accumulated over the past 500 years. This research helped to establish baseline conditions before European settlement and enabled comparisons of changes as they occur in relation to current and fluctuating water levels and water quality. The results showed that the current water quality at the time of the study (2013) was not significantly degraded over the last 500 years. However, human activities were shown to have reduced water quality historically during the lumber industry of the late 1800s, increased shoreline development in the 50’s and 60’s, and with climate change impacts.
Microbial Source TrackingThis DNA-based research is a novel diagnostic tool which helps us to identify the source of organisms found in the water, such as bacteria, and determine whether they are naturally occurring or the result of human interaction, such as failing septic systems or combined sewer overflows from municipal systems (CSO). Where has this technique been used? The final report , released in 2016, shows that contaminant levels in the Township’s water from birds and pets are well below detectable water quality standard limits for Ontario, and for humans they are are also well within acceptable limits. The population should be confident that the systems the Township currently has in place are working well.
Standardizing water quality protocols contributes to more efficient and effective management decisions in safeguarding water quality.
Future Objectives:1. Work with partners and Eastern Georgian Bay communities to educate about key learnings and protocols that built upon GBF work with the Georgian Bay Township. The final recommendations are outlined in the final report Enclosed Bays an Inland Lakes Phosphorus Monitoring Guideline, coordinated by GBBR and Environment Canada.
- Townships, ratepayer associations and volunteers should join the Lake Partner Program (LPP) administered by the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. Learn more about the LPP and/or to register at http://desc.ca/programs/LPP.
- Current Lake Partner Program (LPP) sampling locations should continue to be monitored in order to establish long-term records and trends.
- New LPP monitoring locations are proposed for eastern Georgian Bay and in-land lakes (and are shown on maps and listed in tables in this link) as opportunities to be addressed by Townships, ratepayer associations and volunteers.
- Compiling freshwater research on the effects of net-pen or cage aquaculture. More info.
- Supporting Dr. Dittrich and her University of Toronto team with their research into Phosphorus and sediment. More info.