Be like water, my friend — and think about water, too

Water: it’s what we should strive to be like, according to famed martial artist Bruce Lee.

Reprinted from Athabasca Advocate

Water: it’s what we should strive to be like, according to famed martial artist Bruce Lee.

Lee was a big fan of water’s ability to adapt to any form, as well as its seemingly contradictory qualities: it “can flow or it can crash” according to the late actor.

That destructive, crashing quality isn’t exclusive to ocean waves. We saw proof of how unforgiving even lake water can be last week after three men were pulled out of Calling Lake, their boat capsized and their strength nearly spent. The sobering thought of four people killed in the southern Alberta floods earlier this summer is still fresh in our minds, to say nothing of well-publicized drowning deaths throughout the province in recent weeks — a three-year-old in Mink Lake, a 26-year-old in Sylvan Lake and an 11-year-old in Mahogany Lake.

But last week, we also saw proof of how paradoxically fragile water can be. Blue-green algae advisories have been issued for three local lakes — Baptiste, Cross, and Calling Lakes — and although it’s a sight to which many of us have grown accustomed, there’s little that’s natural about it. Yes, Alberta soil is naturally high in phosphorous (a key ingredient for blue-green algae blooms). And yes, blue-green algae predate the human activity that’s credited with worsening the blooms. The algae (actually, cyanobacteria if you want to get technical) even predate humans themselves. Still, there’s no doubt that human actions, from the fertilizers we use on our prized petunias to the dog feces we neglect to scoop from the beach, have increased phosphorous levels in lakes. This makes lakes more hospitable for the toxin-excreting blue-green algae that can poison humans and wildlife and suffocate fish.

Lakes, whatever we imagine they conceal in their depths, have no arsenal to deal with something as seemingly benign as a fertilized lawn that runs right down to the water.

Those who live near affected lakes and scientists who have studied the water agree that the algae blooms seem to be getting worse. Yet representatives from Alberta Health Services and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resources, when asked, said neither body has tracked trends in the frequency and severity of blooms across the province or region by region.

Perhaps it is time to consider a provincial lake management strategy — something the provincial government says it is willing to look at. At the very least, we need better enforcement of bylaws pertaining to activities near or on lakes. Because it is not enough to be like water in an esoteric sense: we need to think about water in the real world and respect both its power and fragility.