How to minimize runoff

By Steve StocktonSteve Stockton


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1. Sniff out a sick septic system

There are still cottagers out there with leaking and overloaded septic systems, a major source of contaminated runoff to the lake. Human waste contains phosphorus, a nutrient that algae thrive on; too much of it, and your lake will get algal blooms and decline in water quality. Inspect your septic bed and surrounding area periodically for odours or puddling and, if you detect trouble, call in the professionals. And get the tank pumped out every three to five years. If you’re having a huge crowd to the cottage, say for a wedding, rent a porta-potty instead of stressing the septic system.

2. Kick the lawn habit

About 50 per cent of rainfall rolls right over short manicured grass to the water, carrying with it fertilizers (many are loaded with phosphorus) or pesticides (poisonous to aquatic life). Better to replace a lawn with no-maintenance native plants, such as dogwood and black-eyed Susans, which readily absorb most surface water. If you must be a turfhead, keep the grass more than 30 metres from the shoreline, don’t use fertilizers or pesticides, and mow it no shorter than eight centimetres high.

3. Refuel away from the water

When you need to top up gas tanks, such as chainsaws, generators, pumps, and boat engines, do it well back from shore, preferably over a tray and in a shelter with a hard floor. Use a rag for mopping, to make cleanup easy.

4. Hook a rainbarrel up to your eavestroughs

By catching rainfall before it hits the ground, you can greatly reduce runoff. (For those who only associate runoff with summer rainfall, it also comes in winter and spring, in the form of snowmelt.) Even temporarily storing rain in a barrel until after a storm lets up helps reduce erosion. Newer rainbarrels are designed to keep out mossies so the water won’t become a breeding pool for them.

5. Replace hard, paved surfaces with more porous ones

Instead of asphalt or concrete surfaces for paths and drives, use wood chips, small pebbles, permeable paving stone, or anything else that allows runoff to soak into the soil. You can also plant a small rain garden, a planted depression designed to catch overflow water around paved areas.

6. Stock up on greener cleaners

What goes down the drain and into the septic can still make its way to the lake. Many detergents and soaps on the market contain phosphates, so watch what you buy. As well, avoid using household chemical cleaners, which destroy the beneficial bacteria that break down the waste in the holding tank. There are much less harmful alternatives now, with the proliferation of products with green certifications, such as the federal government’s EcoLogo (see Green Resources link) and the comeback of DIY cleaners, like baking soda, vinegar, and lemon juice (for recipes, visit the Less Toxic Guide).

7. Don’t soap in the lake, ever

Even if a soap says it’s phosphate-free and biodegradable, don’t assume it’s safe for the lake. The soap can be harmful to fish and other aquatic animals; all “biodegradable” means is that it’s capable of breaking down (with the help of soil bacteria) into its constituent parts. However, do use this type of soap if bathing on land, and dump the washwater well back from the lake, so it doesn’t filter down as runoff.

8. Pick up after your pooch

Yes, there’s already wildlife poop around the cottage, but modern CSI-style tracking of pollutants has identified dog-doo as a major source of water pollution in many areas, one that carries coliform bacteria that can make people sick. Bury or toss it in the back forty, or flush it down.



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Steve Stockton