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Water Today Title June 29, 2022

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Update 2017/12/23
Blue-green algae


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By Michelle Moore

The proliferation of blue green algae or cyanobacteria is caused by an overabundance of nutrients in the water, more specifically phosphorous, which can lead to harmful algal blooms (HABs). Much of this is caused by human changes in land use, the widespread use of agricultural fertilizers and inadequately treated sewage. The phenomenon, also known as eutrophication, is exacerbated by an overall increase in air and water temperatures, as can be seen in summertime algal blooms.

HABs manifest themselves as a layer of green slime on the water's surface and causes water to stink. They release liver toxins and neurotoxins which means people or animals that swim in or drink contaminated water can experience skin irritations, gastrointestinal and respiratory issues, and liver failure. In addition, anyone who unknowingly eats fish or shellfish containing these toxins can get very sick and require hospitalization.

A 2002 University of Alberta study found cyanobacteria in 246 bodies of water throughout every province and territory. While much has been written about the impacts on human health and the environment, not much is known about the economic costs, of which there are potentially many. HABs cause increased health care costs, water treatment costs, diminish lakeside property values, threaten tourism and fishing industries, and cost tremendous amounts to study and remediate.

While government documentation discusses the potential economic impacts of cyanobacteria, it does not offer any clear estimates. For instance, a Manitoba Conservation report reads "water quality problems that arise as a result of eutrophication of drinking and recreational waters are difficult and expensive to remedy. For drinking water sources the cost of additional treatment may be prohibitive in many jurisdictions, while for recreational waterbodies, a decline in the aesthetic quality of the water can adversely affect tourism, and lead to decreased land and cottage values."

Public Affairs Specialist for the Government of Manitoba, Glen Cassie said that while they are actively combatting eutrophication, data associated to the economic impact simply doesn't exist. The same response was given by David Karn, Senior Public Affairs Officer for the Environment and Climate Change Strategy Communications Office of British Columbia.

Days after contacting the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DPO) to ask how cyanobacteria is affecting our oceans and fish stock, Media Relations person Sarah Gilbert said "I have checked in with my colleagues here at DFO, as well as Environment and Climate Change Canada and have determined that your inquiry is a provincial matter."

Last year a study at the University of Montréal on how to combat cyanobacteria was awarded $12.3 million over the next four years from Genome Canada, a non-profit organization funded by the federal government. The press release contained a statement from the Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation of Québec which pinpointed that the cost of managing cyanobacteria in the United States has been calculated at $825 million per year. Yet when the press secretary of the ministry, Gabrielle Thellier was asked to comment about potential costs for Canada, she invited this reporter to direct their questions to Québec's Ministry of Environment.

Bob Sandford is EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health and Senior Advisor on water issues for the Interaction Council, made up of roughly forty former Heads of State whose goal is to inform policy around the world. Sandford said that "as a society we are now only just waking up to the utter inadequacy of our economic system to account for the real costs of long-term degradation of the manifold ecological conditions that comprise biodiversity-based Earth system function."

According to Sandford, what follows is the challenge to find "accurate, detailed, public information on the economic impacts of eutrophication on property values, fisheries productivity, tourism revenues; health care costs, increased costs for water treatment; remediation costs and the rising costs of scientific research. Either that information doesn't exist or, if it does, it is held that it is not in the public interest to share it because in sharing it, what it reveals could become self-fulfilling in terms of its negative impacts ..."

Overall cost estimates do exist for other jurisdictions, as do isolated cost estimates such as for the remediation for certain bodies of water. For instance, the city council of Toledo, Ohio spent $1 million to combat cyanobacteria that was seeping into the drinking water supply from Lake Erie. Lake Erie also flows into Lake Ontario which then filters into the St. Lawrence River and finally, into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences found that cyanobacteria in western Lake Erie has caused beach closures and drinking water advisories in Canada. Canada's Economic Action Plan includes an investment of "$16 million in the Great Lakes Nutrient Initiative for a four-year period to address the recurrent toxic and algae issues in Ontario's Great Lakes." EnviroEconomics, who was partly responsible for a report entitled Valuing The Canadian Cost of Algal Blooms in Lake Erie said that they were unaware of any comprehensive figures for Canada at large.

Lake Winnipeg is of a comparable size to that of Lake Erie and is also threatened by HABs, many of which flow into it from the Red River. The Lake Winnipeg Basin Program received $18 million in funding in 2008, and an additional $18 million in 2012. According to the 2017 Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative Report however, "the level of nutrient reductions delivered by these projects is extremely small in relation to total estimated phosphorus loads, with total reductions delivered over five years estimated at less than 1% of the annual nutrient loads entering the lake."

In 2017, the federal government announced they were injecting another $25.7 million in the Lake Winnipeg Basin Program. Given that the first eight years and $32 million dollars resulted in only minute improvements, Sandford said the latest investment was done "with no assurance of result that will reduce algal blooms or measurably improve the health of the lake." He gave the example of Lake Constance in Switzerland which cost roughly $2.6 Billion dollars and forty years to remediate, noting that Lake Winnipeg is 45 times larger.

According to the Manitoba Government, as of 2006 Manitoba represented "35 % of the total dollar value and 36 % of the total landings (kg) of commercial production of freshwater fish across Canada."

In 2015 the government estimated the total value of commercial fishing in Lake Winnipeg at over $17 million down 2 million from six years prior. That same year the province ordered a review of fisheries in the province following a report from SeaChoice, Canada's sustainable seafood watchdog, which warned people against consuming fish caught in the lake.

Lake Winnipeg is also a popular tourist destination and hosts several festivals on a yearly basis, though no data exists on how HABs are affecting tourism. Sandford said "the problem here is that long before science could with confidence declare that an actual tipping point has been crossed that will result or has resulted in the collapse of the lake ecosystem" invisible and irreversible social, economic and political thresholds may have already been crossed.

He added that "in the case of Lake Winnipeg, the reputations of communities affected by eutrophication are already being damaged. Long-standing cottage country status could be lost as property values drop; the effect of all of these combined impacts being an out-migration from impacted regions. The economic costs of such impacts, however, remain largely uncalculated."

Shanna Karle, Broker for Ateah Realty in the Lake Winnipeg area said "as far as the property values, they have been fairly stable the last several years, we peaked in 2009-2010 generally and the values have dropped since then but overall we've been pretty stable ... I certainly do have people asking about the algae but I don't think it's stopped anyone from looking to buy in the area ... the blue green stuff is new and people are affected but I don't think it's affecting properties that much, we'll see what happens in the next couple years."

The European Commission, Joint Research Centre Institute for Environment and Sustainability report states that "direct impacts include lost revenue in the marine business caused by shellfish closure, costs of medical treatments for cases of sickness in humans, expenses to remove algae from the water or dead fish from the beaches and investment costs in preventing and monitoring HABs. Indirect effects comprise a significant reduction in tourist flow to the areas affected by HABs, lost revenue from businesses that serve the hotel industry, a decrease in recreation use of lakes, sea and oceans and also an increase in spending of residents."

No cost estimates were offered for Canada with the exception of shellfish poisoning in humans caused by unknowingly consuming shellfish containing toxins caused by HABs. It states that "the reported cases were 525 and the annual costs of diseases was overall estimated at $670 000. Data on monitoring costs of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSPs) was also included and they were valued to cost $3.3 million a year."

In terms of what PSPs might represent in terms of lost revenue for fishing, the Joint Research Centre Institute for Environment and Sustainability cited studies that revealed a "decrease in fish demand that extends to uncontaminated products ... [and an] inability of consumers to distinguish between safe and unsafe products." One study pointed to a domoic acid contamination of PEI shellfish causing important sales losses for Great Eastern Mussel Farms in the U.S.

In British Columbia, a handful of municipalities have attempted to counter eutrophication in lakes by installing underwater aerator systems designed to pump oxygen, hoping to revitalize the oxygen depleted water. In 1984 an aerator was installed in Langford Lake but failed. One year later another was installed and according to a report by the Environmental Law Centre Clinic for the University of Victoria, "by 2005 data showed that the aerator had reduced internal nutrient loading and that fish habitat had expanded." Over the years however, the system became less effective and was replaced again in 2012 at a cost of $250 000. Despite this, the lake did experience HABs the following year which led to a swimming advisory.

St.Mary Lake in Salt Spring Island installed the largest aerator at the time in 1985. It too required replacement in 2008, but by 2013 it was turned off when a study commissioned by the North Salt Spring Waterworks District found it had made water conditions worse. The study read that the aerator had exacerbated the problem, "possibly by disturbing bottom sediments and lowering their capacity to bind phosphorus, which in turn increased phosphorus loading and algal growth." Following this, the Salt Spring Island Watershed Protection Authority suggested a range of studies costing between $76 800 and $89 300, to determine the best course of action.

Dredging is another technique thought to reduce the release of phosphorous into a body of water. Burnaby Lake was dredged in 1972 in preparation for the 1973 Canada Summer Games. A study later concluded that the lake should be dredged again, which was carried out in 1999 at a cost of $20 million. By 2014 HABs had become an issue again.

In 2012 the Quamichan Watershed Stewardship Society and the Nature Conservancy of Canada attempted to address eutrophication in Lake Quamichan by building and restoring wetlands to aid in the filtering of phosphorous. Chair of Quamichan Stewards, Roger Hart said that they "formed in 2006 because the B.C. Ministry of Environment issued a report documenting the decline of health in the lake for the last 50 years, and the formation of blue green algae and cyanobacteria as a manifestation of poor health." He said that after the provincial and federal governments refused to act on it, they did.

After two years of initial studies that included unnamed amounts of funding by the EcoAction Community Funding Program and the Pacific Salmon Foundation and in partnership with the DPO, the B.C. Ministries of Environment and Agriculture, and the Municipality of North Cowichan; it was determined that restoring the wetlands was the best course of action. After receiving additional unspecified funding from the EcoAction Community Funding Program and the federal government, they proceeded to remediate the area.

Hart said the wetland restoration seemed to be effective at first, but said that there was "an unfortunate incident where two to three dogs wandered into the scum that the cyanobacteria causes which spurred the municipality into action which established the task force." This refers to a series of dog deaths in 2016 suspected to have been caused by cyanobacteria in Lake Quamichan. Since then, a new task force has been established to tackle the ongoing issue.

Dr. David Schindler holds the Order of Canada and the Alberta Order of Excellence for his work in limnology, the study of inland waters. He said, "in Western Canada there's a number of deaths for livestock, pets, and wildlife from poisoning and of course the stoning mats on the shoreline affect property values [especially] the South Basin of Lake Winnipeg where a couple metres wide of stinking algae has been happening for 20 years or so." He added that "in North America there's often a lack of will to control the problem, the problem being to control the nutrients."

Dr. Schindler explained that in the case of drinking water, traditional water treatment systems do not adequately treat water contaminated by HABs, and that some of the problems with First Nations water supplies come from this bacteria. He said, "on the prairies I'd bet 50% of the problems with drinking water is caused by cyanobacteria."

His colleague Dr. Hans Peterson is a retired engineer and scientific advisor for the Safe Drinking Water Foundation who installed a dozen Integrated Biological Reverse Osmosis Membrane (IBOM) Treatment Plants in First Nations communities across Canada. He explained "first we treat the water biologically and remove particles and compounds that can be nutrients for bacteria and then it goes through reverse osmosis ... then it is washed through calcium and minerals." He added that in terms of costs, they can be the same or less than conventional water treatment plants.

In 2016, Canada and the U.S. announced new targets to reduce the amount of phosphorous going into Lake Erie by 40%. Studies concerning the best way to manage cyanobacteria are ongoing as are remediation efforts, but increases in temperature point to the fact that the problem will only get worse. This also means that whether or not we have exact figures, it will continue to get more expensive.

Sandford reminds us that "we need to construct a business model that respects the real value of aquatic ecosystem services rather than simply creating markets for repairing the uncalculated and often incalculable damage we do to them as a matter of prescribed course."

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