The Society has recognized the extra efforts of property owners who participated in the Living by Water program of Nature Alberta with these yard signs. Photo Submitted

The Society has recognized the extra efforts of property owners who participated in the Living by Water program of Nature Alberta with these yard signs. Photo Submitted

Stewardship in the Sylvan Lake Watershed

The Sylvan Lake Watershed Stewardship Society submits a weekly column about the lake

By Graeme Strathdee and the SLWSS team

Watershed stewardship, like computer virus software, is a community service that works quietly in the background to ensure that the natural assets that create value for Sylvan Lake are not harmed by human activities. You know when it is working when a notification appears on your screen, or in your lake.

This article, third in the SLWSS series, is about environmental threats to the state of the watershed. We look at official data reported to Alberta Municipal Affairs (MA) to investigate land use changes since 2004. That includes the early period of controversial proposed land use changes that angered the watershed community until today when controlled growth is limited mainly to the Town of Sylvan Lake with its protective urban infrastructure.

Our basic SLWSS concern is that massively increased population will inevitably cause land use disruption, enhance release of nutrients into the lake, cause chronic eutrophication, and algal blooms that degrade property and recreational values. Major examples are everywhere: Lake Winnipeg, Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico and the Sea of Japan. The Sylvan Lake watershed is just a microscopic version of those global examples of contaminant transport into waterbodies.

It’s not an abstract concern. The Area Structure Plan of Lacombe County and the growth plan for the Town of Sylvan Lake in combination would insert 70,000 people into the Sylvan Lake watershed. The population today is about 16,000. No one seems to be in charge.

We can understand the risk factors of an expanding watershed population that would increase the transport of contamination off the land and into the lake. Without Outlet Creek flow to Cygnet Lake, Sylvan Lake has become a closed-system bathtub. So, runoff from the surrounding communities stays in the lake. We already see that chloride concentration from winter road salt is increasing.

Cumulatively, diffuse sources of nutrients and contaminants that originate over large areas are important. That explains why land use changes caused by a growing population are the primary threat to the state of the watershed. Between 2004 and 2017, the watershed population grew from about 9500 to 16,000 people according to MA data. Most of that growth has been in the Town of Sylvan Lake (TSL) which added 6312 of those 6500 people, although some of that population lives outside the hydrological boundary and is effectively isolated from the lake.

As indicators of those diffuse-source threats, the number of people and dwellings per hectare (ha) of land are measures of the urbanization of land. In 2017, the TSL recorded 6.5 people and 3 dwellings per hectare. The five Summer Villages (SVs) have both fewer people (1-5) and dwellings (0.5 to 2) per hectare.

Proximity of people to the lake determines the length of flow paths for subsurface- and storm-water and the ease of discharge of contaminants. SV properties are the closest and they occupy about 35 percent of the shoreline and 261 hectares or 2.3 percent of the watershed land. While more remote, the mainly agricultural land in two counties is about 89% of the total watershed area. It is connected to the lake by

the natural drainage tributaries and about 250 km of roadside ditches. Peak flows occur in Spring runoff when high nutrient concentrations from those diffuse sources are discharged into the lake to spin the eutrophication lottery wheel. Incremental land use changes from population expansion will be cumulative and will disrupt the water and nutrient balance of today.

Population growth has an economic impact that increases the risk to property and business assets because of an enhanced probability of chronic eutrophication. The total watershed property equalized tax assessment reached $3.3 billion in 2017. The TSL exceeded $2.4 billion while the sum of all others barely reached $0.88 billion. Both county valuations were less than $0.10 billion as farmland prices control that estimate. Therefore, the TSL has the strongest incentive to enforce stewardship practices that protect the interests of property owners. The SVs also should champion the same cause as valuations of SVs ranged between $1.75 and $3.55 billion per hectare in 2017. All exceeded the TSL valuation of $1.6 billion per hectare so they top the wealth concentration ranking.

Yet two indicators suggest that watershed stewardship is not a top priority in SVs. Our own SLWSS recruiting of mainly lakefront property owners in SVs for Nature Alberta’s voluntary Living by Water project attracted only 15 percent of potential participants. In addition, the Alberta Environment and Parks shoreline video assessments have rated SV stewardship practices as deficient.

We admit a gap in understanding of the state of stewardship in the watershed’s agricultural community. Practical evidence is that the lake has survived the annual nutrient loading cycle by runoff from ag land for more than a century. Nevertheless, our tributary testing shows that nutrient concentrations in Spring ag runoff have been very high, yet seasonal phytoplankton growth in the lake has been stable for decades. Alberta Agriculture’s Environmental Farm Plan certification allows farmers and ranchers to check on their own practices and to demonstrate responsible care of the land.

In summary, like that computer virus detector, the Stewardship Society continues to lurk in the background eagerly waiting to quarantine watershed threats. Read more about us at https://slwss.org.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta premier Jason Kenney declared a public health state of emergency Tuesday and sweeping new measures as COVID-19 cases in the province continue to rise. (photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Kenney declares state of public health emergency as COVID-19 cases rise

High schools shift to online learning, businesses face new restrictions

The tree decorated in red decorations is called the Buffalo Plaid Cottage Tree. Papple says this tree has more of a "taditional, cottage-y feel." (Photo Submitted)
Sylvan Lake resident auctioning decorated Christmas trees to help local charities

Shauntel Papple is auctioning two fully decorated trees to benefit AACS and Youth Unlimited

A roundabout is proposed at the intersection of Hwy 11 and 781. (Photo Courtesy of McElhanney Engineering)
Twinning of Hwy. 11 to see roundabouts at Sylvan Lake, Benalto and Eckville intersections

Five roundabouts are planned along Hwy. 11 as part of the previously announced twinning

On Sept. 29 the First Sylvan Lake Sparks decorated the sidewalks at the Bethany Care Centre with pictures and uplifting messages. Pictured left to right are Maddie, Nora, Teagan, and Isabelle. At the time all Girl Guide meetings and activities had to be held outside. (Photo Submitted)
Sylvan Lake Girl Guides planning cookie drive-thru this weekend

The cookie drive-thru is Nov. 29 from 12-4 in the high school parking lot

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, announced the province surpasses one million COVID-19 tests Friday. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
COVID-19: Central zone active cases up by 100 in last 24 hours

Most central Alberta communities under province’s enhanced measures list

Kyle Charles poses for a photo in Edmonton on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Marvel Entertainment, the biggest comic book publisher in the world, hired the 34-year-old First Nations illustrator as one of the artists involved in Marvel Voice: Indigenous Voices #1 in August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
VIDEO: Indigenous illustrator of new Marvel comic hopes Aboriginal women feel inspired

Kyle Charles says Indigenous women around the world have reached out

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in first few months of 2021, prime minister says

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
VIDEO: How do the leading COVID vaccines differ? And what does that mean for Canada?

All three of the drug companies are incorporating novel techniques in developing their vaccines

Ilaria Rubino is shown in this undated handout image at University of Alberta. Alberta researcher Rubino has developed technology allowing mostly salt to kill pathogens in COVID-19 droplets as they land on a mask. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Alberta
Alberta researcher gets award for COVID-19 mask innovation

The salt-coated mask is expected to be available commercially next year after regulatory approval.

Russ and Luanne Carl are sharing about their experiences of fighting COVID-19 this past summer. (Photo submitted)
Stettler couple opens up about COVID-19 battle

Luanne and Russ Carl urge others to bolster personal safety measures amidst ongoing pandemic

This 2019 photo provided by The ALS Association shows Pat Quinn. Quinn, a co-founder of the viral ice bucket challenge, died Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, at the age of 37. (Scott Kauffman/The ALS Association via AP)
Co-founder of viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge dies at 37

Pat Quinn was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in 2013

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti speaks with the media following party caucus in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Exclusion of mental health as grounds for assisted death is likely temporary: Lametti

Senators also suggested the exclusion renders the bill unconstitutional

Claudio Mastronardi, Toronto branch manager at Carmichael Engineering, is photographed at the company’s offices in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. As indoor air quality becomes a major concern in places of business, HVAC companies are struggling to keep up with demand for high quality filtration systems. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Business is booming for HVAC companies as commercial buildings see pandemic upgrades

‘The demand right now is very high. People are putting their health and safety ahead of cost’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Long-awaited federal rent subsidy program for businesses hurt by COVID-19 opens today

The new program will cover up to 65 per cent of rent or commercial mortgage interest

Most Read