The proverbial feedlot bedding hit the fan when Alberta Environment, in the 1970s during the marathon sessions of the Red Deer River dam hearings, called agricultural a major threat to water quality in the region’s drainage basin.
Farmers, in a mindset of denial, were livid at the emotionally charged town hall meetings. At the time, agriculture activities were treated as sacred grounds immune to criticism. No trespassing.
In fact, Alberta Environment hit the nail on the head. And almost 40 years later, it’s apparent those findings back have yet to be taken seriously, according to an environmental report undertaken by Lacombe County.
There’s no beating around the bush on this one. In the State of the Environment report compiled by the county, water quality was given failing grades in the Red Deer, Medicine and Blindman River basins. Runoff from agricultural operations, lawn chemicals, cattle waste and leaking septic tanks from acreages are to blame, for the most part.
According to an Advocate report on Monday, the water quality in those three rivers, as well as Haynes and Whelp Creeks, were rated in the study as “poor.”
Don’t take these ratings lightly. “Poor,” under Alberta Environment’s surface water guidelines, means the “worst” water quality and is considered impaired and “well below desirable levels.”
The rivers and creeks flunked the test when it was found they contained water high in nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen. It was also found they contained more bacteria, parasites and pesticides than is desirable under Alberta Environment guidelines.
What’s to blame?
In pact, a lack of strict guidelines on agricultural activities. In part, a lack of education on environmentally safe practices.
Common practices of a generation ago can no longer be accepted, with the ever-increasing pressure placed on our water supplies by explosive growth in population and development.
The Red Deer River dam hearings brought to light a lack of information in the agricultural communities. Farmers were understandably upset when fingers were pointed at them. For many, it was the first time they had heard their operations were a threat to the rivers and creeks.
A front-page Advocate report published during the hearings came under fire when winter photos taken from an airplane showed the Medicine, Blindman and Raven Rivers were literally turned into mini feedlot operations. Farmers had chopped holes in the ice for livestock watering and gave their cattle free range of the frozen watersheds. There was little thought that the manure piled up on the ice and eventually flushed downstream during spring thaw was a cause for concern. That was the way things had been done for years.
Lacombe County’s environmental co-ordinator Blayne West was not surprised at the results of the current environmental study. Nor were many rural residents who identified water quality and habitat preservation as the two major environment concerns in public consultations.
Now that Lacombe County has forged ahead, much to its credit, in identifying crucial environmental concerns, it is vital that other counties and municipalities in Alberta follow suit.
“The idea is, we have to start somewhere,” said West. “Hopefully we can be a leader in this and there will be a groundswell of support from residents … and other counties and municipalities will get on board.”
While West has ruled out that Lacombe County will legislate tighter environmental rules, that option should remain open. If a public awareness campaign doesn’t produce results, then legislation may be the only alternative, here and elsewhere in the province.
Long gone are the days when we could take our water for granted. It must be protected at all costs — the well is not bottomless.
Rick Zemanek is a retired Advocate editor.