Western cottage communities deal with growth

Published: September 4, 2018

Osoyoos-Lake-British-Columbia EB Adventure Photography / Shutterstock.com

About six years ago, Barbara Calvert was spending time at her cabin in the Summer Village of Grandview, on the shore of Pigeon Lake, Alta. It wasn’t just a relaxing day by the water; it was a busy few hours of yardwork. But she wasn’t weeding and trimming hedges like usual. Instead, she was shovelling up dead fish that had been swept onto her property. “It was very pleasant, as you can imagine…the smell and sight of the fish. It happens rarely, but, of course, nobody likes it,” says Calvert.

There was some debate over the cause of the dead whitefish, yellow perch, and walleye lining the shores, with scientists speculating that warmer temperatures and an increase in blue-green algae blooms potentially contributed to the die-off. While blue-green algae is naturally occurring, human activity can increase its frequency and severity, thanks to elevated levels of nutrients from fertilizers and poorly maintained septic systems. Algae blooms create problems not just for the lake itself—depleted oxygen levels in the water affect aquatic life—but also for those who want to enjoy it.

A large bloom on Pigeon Lake in 2006 had already brought the issue to the forefront, and Grandview really got to work making changes. “A lot of people have been there for so many years, so many generations,” says Calvert, “and a lot of people just want to pitch in and do what they can and keep the integrity of the environment.”

Over the years, faulty septic fields have been removed, fertilizers banned, and environmental reserves established. And in 2015, Rolf Vinebrooke, a University of Alberta scientist, did a series of studies on the lake looking at algae growth. Aside from the obvious ecological impact, the effect on tourism is also a concern. “The blooms have impacted the enjoyment of the lake the few times they occur and have reduced the number of people visiting,” says Grandview’s mayor, Don Davidson. “These events were certainly a wake-up call to all residents that watershed stewardship was essential for the protection of our lake.”

Blue-green algae is just one issue that resort communities in the West have had to deal with as they attract more seasonal residents, who build cabins and homes along lakes and sensitive areas, and grow into busier hubs, especially as governments give money for their expansion. Through the Resort Municipality Initiative program, since 2006, B.C. has provided provincial funding to 14 resort communities to foster growth, including the construction of Whistler’s Gateway Loop (a transportation hub) and the development of nature trails in Golden. In 2017, the province allocated $10.5 million. (The new government is currently reviewing funding distribution.)

Osoyoos, B.C., is one of the communities that received funding, which has gone towards a plaza with trees at one of the lake’s beaches (replacing a parking lot), a beach cleaner, recycling containers, new washrooms, and a new marina, to name a few. Birgit Arnstein, the president of the Osoyoos Lake Water Quality Society, a non-profit, says that the key is to balance economic and environmental interests. Finding that balance is especially important in a place like Osoyoos, which is right on the border with the U.S., with a unique set of conditions: it’s in a pocket desert, has Canada’s warmest lake, and is home to an incredible diversity of species.

The town’s population expands in the summer to 20,000 from just 5,000 year-round residents. Over the past few decades, the influx of seasonal residents has had a profound—and negative—effect: invasive species, such as Eurasian milfoil, an aquatic weed, are threatening biodiversity; developers have built over wetlands around the lake, increasing runoff and reducing wildlife habitat; and Osoyoos now has one of the highest concentrations of endangered species in Canada. Arnstein’s organization is working to monitor and improve the quality of the lake and the surrounding desert. The non-profit is working with the municipal and provincial governments to teach the public about ways they can make a difference through small, yet significant, actions, including recycling toxic household items, reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and preventing the influx of more invasive species. “We talk to people along the lake and try to educate them about building too close to the water, because that causes erosion and can damage and affect the quality of the lake in time,” says Arnstein.

Over in Alberta, willow bushes and wild raspberries now grow naturally along Grandview’s shoreline, while a small creek runs through the summer village, which is just one of about a dozen communities on Pigeon Lake. In the past, you’d see cattle from a nearby ranch drinking at the creek, compacting the soil and causing erosion by damaging the vegetation that keeps the banks intact. But now there are fish spawning in the water along that same shoreline, which is protected by fencing and plantings at the water’s edge.

“The biggest change in recent years is that people went from having small cabins to having large, city-type homes around the lake. Unfortunately, what goes with that is the removal of trees and vegetation, putting in big lawns, and extensive landscaping,” says Mayor Davidson. Some cabin owners want unobstructed views of the lake, but these landscaping choices contribute to shoreline erosion and lead to increased runoff, which is often nutrient-rich and contaminates the water.

To combat this type of overdevelopment, in April 2014, Grandview’s council rewrote the land-use bylaw, banning retaining walls and the use of fertilizers, requiring a 10-metre setback for buildings on the shoreline, and mandating the installation of motion-sensor lights to reduce light pollution. Prior to passing the bylaw, the municipality was required to hold a public hearing. Davidson said the community reacted well to the changes from the beginning, with the results of their enthusiasm now on display on their properties. “Quite unexpectedly, the hearing ended with a round of applause for the actions that council was taking in protecting our lake,” he says. From the beginning, the council was open and communicative with residents, encouraging feedback, which Davidson says helped with the successful transition.

For her part, Barbara Calvert planted Saskatoon bushes and highbush cranberries along the shore. And she has avoided impermeable materials, such as brick or concrete, to reduce runoff and erosion, instead sticking with grasses and maintaining the wild vegetation already there. She was also one of many in the village to take advantage of a free assessment offered through Living by Water, a Nature Alberta program, whereby a shoreline advisor gave tips on improvements to her property.

Alberta Beach, a popular resort community along Lac Ste. Anne, just west of Edmonton, has been growing since the early 1900s, when weekend travellers would arrive by train and soon began building cabins, free from many restrictions. Today, water from the lake splashes right onto the lawns of cabins built precariously close to the edge, often blocking any public access or even the sightlines of backlot owners.

Meanwhile, 25 per cent of the septic systems tested around the lake failed inspection, according to the 2016 Isle Lake and Lac Ste. Anne State of the Watershed Report. Just this last summer, Alberta Beach had a sewer line break on the main street that runs parallel to the lake. And the nearby village of West Cove still uses unlined pit toilets, which are basically outhouses, though the report says there’s currently a plan to phase them out. “This helped lead to the summer villages and the county of Lac Ste. Anne installing a waste-water collection and transmission system,” says Angela Duncan, the deputy mayor of Alberta Beach.

“Unfortunately, when many of the summer villages formed, they were seasonal in nature, and there was not a lot of planning that went into them. These are problems that have been inherited by the current residents and users of the area,” says Duncan, who’s also the vice-president of the Lake Isle and Lac Ste. Anne Water Quality Management Society. “I believe that there is a more sustainable way to move forward to keep both the lake and the people that use it happy and healthy.” Her council is rewriting the municipal development plan to include a land-use bylaw that will rezone areas to allow for tiny homes​, 400 sq. ft., as opposed to the usual 1,000 sq. ft. minimum. These compact homes are more sustainable to build—using fewer materials for construction—and are designed to consume less energy over time. The cabins especially make sense for those at the lake part-time, who spend the majority of that time outdoors and don’t require a large living space. The plan also advises against the use of retaining walls (though as yet the municipality can’t enforce this) and requires new large developments to complete an environmental impact study prior to construction.

Lac Ste. Anne is located in an agricultural area with farmlands and a golf course nearby, which also contributes to an increase in nutrients (from lawn and crop fertilizers and herbicides) that affect the lake’s water quality. To reduce the impact, the Alberta Conservation Association flew drones over certain hard-to-access marshy shorelines, looking for damage to natural vegetation along embankments—these damaged areas make it easier for nutrients to reach the lake, and, once spotted, they can be restored.

Once excess nutrients are in a lake they remain in the water for many years, so seeing change to water quality, says ecologist Rolf Vinebrooke, can take time. “Curbing lake nitrification is almost like curbing climate change—it’s trying to do something now so that your children or grandchildren can see the improvement,” he says. But he also says it’s incredibly worthwhile.

While some of these issues may have been ignored in favour of development in years past, now, long-term planning and proactive measures—such as the updated land-use bylaw in Grandview, the educational programs in Osoyoos, and the upcoming development plan in Alberta Beach—often result in more sustainable resort community designs.

Ultimately, Angela Duncan says, being honest about their many challenges and proactive in dealing with them is the best approach for resort communities as they grow. “If we continue to have these problems, not only will our lake die, but our village will die as well,” she says. “So, in order for the village to succeed, it’s critical to maintain the health of our lake.”

Freelancer Caroline Barlott lives in Edmonton.

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