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General News · 12th September 2014
R. Lawton
“In my opinion the most ecologically favourable solution is a well-placed outhouse.” Those are not the words of an uninformed layman. It was an intense discussion with the province’s top scientist about the cumulative impact of multiple septic systems. Each creates an “effluent plume” of residue that flows underground over impervious material just like a river flows on the surface, and he was explaining how iron in the soil locks up phosphate so it is less mobile, when the man who dealt with the province’s major sewage issues and was chair of international committees on waste systems suddenly stopped and made the startling, unofficial declaration that under the right conditions, nature does a better job than expensive hi-tech!

It took a while to figure out what he was saying. Here’s a simplified explanation:

A septic system tries to dissolve raw effluent in water and then coat soil particles so it is continuously exposed to oxygen (air). Unable to multiply, bacteria die naturally while other “harmful” ingredients are oxidised and stay intact; put in nitrogen, phosphorous, heavy metals etc. and you get the same amount of chemically modified nitrogen, phosphorous and heavy metals out. If plants and trees don’t consume if first and it reaches saturated ground it can travel, accumulate and cause trouble.

A “well-placed” outhouse (or better yet, a composting toilet) relies on direct, in place digestion. Under the right conditions plants and trees, with help from fungi and a host of microscopic creatures, convert everything into roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruit and seeds with virtually no residue. The right conditions? Lots of trees growing in lots of unsaturated soil with lots of distance to water sources.

Reality is not quite so simple because many things like steep slope, ditches and soil type can hinder performance, but in general:
- both systems are very effective at rural density (2 or more acres)
- septic systems and even more expensive hi-tech solutions have advantages only when nature is unable to do its job
- elimination of a well-placed outhouse will provide little, if any, benefit - and needlessly cost a fortune.

I was drawn into the lake pollution issue before the ban on corrupt government by claims of “sewage problems” during the 1996 rezoning of the 50 acres behind Manson’s Hall. When a professional study stated there is nothing unusual about the property and found no problem, the claim shifted to “possible pollution of Hague Lake”. So a second study divided the entire Hague and Gunflint basin into zones according to population and density, analysed each separately and combined the result. The study concluded that 50 acres, fully populated at 2 acre density, would add less than 0.7% to existing human pollution, and the effect would be insignificant when animals were included. There were three other highlights:

1. High density. In 1996 all of our largest year-round community uses (the school, community hall and restaurant) were in a narrow, downsloping strip at Beasley Road, above and to one side of twenty-two 1/3 acre lots at Austin Road. With the added visitor use the effective population and density of this area was huge, with steep slope, ditches, much of the trees removed and each effluent residue reinforcing everything below, so it should be no surprise that the 2003 lake study measured high adjacent faecal count in Hague Lake. Yet we have continued to amplify the problem with the 2002 bylaw update doubling density to 6 families per acre at Austin Road and the seniors’ housing adding 6 dwellings per acre in 2009. Ironically, the existence of so much overload that did not reveal its problems for many years demonstrates the safety of rural density.

2. Animals. The 1996 study calculated relative pollution from body weight, population, type of processing (septic, outhouse/composting toilet or none), distance to water and attenuation as residue travels through or over ground, and concluded that animals would have a dominant influence. Steps have been taken to reduce this and DNA testing should determine if it is still a significant issue.

3. Self cleaning of the lakes. Hague and Gunflint lakes have a high “catchment ratio” (water collection area relative to lake area) of 10:1 because the freshwater lake area is limited by the outflow into Manson’s Lagoon that is dominantly salt. Four thousand acres downsloping into four hundred acres of lakes multiplies rainfall by ten. Each foot of rain causes ten feet of water to flow through the shallow lakes; enough to replace their contents at least twice every wet season. Much of the pollution is thus transported through into Manson’s Lagoon (where the reverse flow of an incoming tide causes periods of almost still water that allow nutrients to settle - which is why shellfish grow so prolifically in Manson’s Lagoon!). Because of this self cleaning a large amount of pollution is tolerated by the lakes.

So what went wrong? Why did the lakes suddenly bloom without any significant change in sources of pollution?

The answer is not increased pollution, but an unusual climate pattern:

Soil stores water like a sponge. It drains gradually until the space between particles is mostly air, and when it rains water first clings to soil particles before there is downward flow, so short bursts of rain replenish storage with little change in groundwater flow. Last season’s total rainfall was fairly typical, but it all happened in short bursts without any extended, overcast days of steady rain. The lakes themselves had no influence. There were clear indicators many miles away:

- just like the Hague/Gunflint basin, rain collected from a few thousand acres flows into a narrow, 3 mile saltwater channel at Von Donop Inlet, causing “water mounding” (the level at the inflow end is higher than at the mouth). The wet season debris line from the highest high tide is usually 16-18” higher than in summer when almost no fresh water is flowing in (and pollution from boats accumulates alarmingly). Throughout the last wet season the highest high tide line was consistently 3-4” above summer level, which indicates a steady 20% background flow due to soil drainage without any peaks.

- during high flow a ledge under a waterfall lifts water so it flows out horizontally off the top, but last season it didn’t put on its spectacular show once.

- the outflow of a swampy area that usually threatens to flood over a nearby road came nowhere close, and in spring the channel was completely choked with green algae.

How did the absence of heavy flow affect the bloomin’ lakes? Imagine fluffy feathers floating on a light breeze. If the air slows they drift down and settle. If it speeds up loose feathers on the ground are swept along too. That’s how pollution particles move in flowing water. At high flow resulting from sustained rainfall, particles are carried into Manson’s Lagoon and any loose sediment is included, but at only 20% of peak flow, both suspended particles and sediment stay in the lake and accumulate. So when temperature rose in spring, some of the tiny critters that are always present in small numbers had such an abundant supply of food that they multiplied and threw a party.

Will another season of only short rain bursts happen again? It could but it seems most unlikely. My experience, confirmed by local families who go back generations, is that lasting change doesn’t begin abruptly. There was gradual decline in the health of the forest for example, until around the time that the Campbell River pulp mill closed, with gradual recovery since. US jets are spraying aluminium dust over our heads that has to come down change our environment (and us, when we breathe it; aluminium dust!) but they’ve been doing it for years, and unless nano-sized aluminium particles can change cloud behaviour or accelerate algae growth, that doesn’t qualify as a likely cause. On the other hand, there have been dramatic once-only events, like heavy snow and freezing in early November that lasted most of the month, and another year the same thing happened in March. Once in the early 90’s a prolonged period of heavy rain followed by intense cold created 8” of ice the length of the salt water channel (fresh water is less dense and floats) with unstoppable, several acre ice sheets moving back and forth with the tide. So I’m guessing that lake blooming is another once-only event and the ongoing situation is nowhere near as dire as is appears. We’ll know in spring.

Regardless of how much Manson’s downtown contributed to the current problem, we have been pushing our luck with density. In the 1996 study the downtown area contributed more pollution than all other human sources combined. If we cross the line where nature is unable to cope, mushrooms and alder chips are just the beginning of escalating expense and trouble. Study the water and waste issues at Q-Cove and Cumberland. Cortes does not have the population and tax base, let alone a stable, healthy economy, to pay for central water and waste systems, and with a large amount of under-utilized land zoned for safe density settlement, we do not need to mimic a city that has to cram people inside a fixed boundary with a huge population to pay for its infrastructure.

Finally, some important lake information that went virtually unnoticed many years ago... (Why do issues have to be idealistic or emotional to get our attention?) In the 2004 water study for Siskin Lane, Thurber Engineering combined the south Cortes well records with geology and their report states; “The relatively high estimated well yields shown on many of the driller’s logs suggest a possible hydraulic connection to the surface waters of Hague/Gunflint lakes.” If this is true it means deep well water comes from the lakes! Naturally there was panic as people imagined the lakes going dry when we turn on our taps, and a sequel study added; “As noted in our report, we are of the opinion that there may potentially be some hydraulic connection between the lakes and the aquifer. When the drilling and geological information indicates an aquifer has such a potentially high yield as the confined Sutil peninsula exhibits, there is often a connection to a surface water source (lake, river, stream) in the recharge area.” and it concluded; “Considering the aquifer storage potential and the limited withdrawal from domestic wells in the area, we are of the opinion that any impact on the lakes from the pumping of domestic wells in the aquifer would be insignificant on lake water levels.”
What this implies, apart from needing a few more than 300 taps to deplete 2 billion gallons, is the water supply in the south peninsula is more than adequate for domestic needs, we don’t have any of the nasty problems other island’s have experienced, like a bubble of fresh water floating on salt, and although bacteria could not survive the journey, lake pollution could have far reaching consequences.

It’s good to see genuine volunteer effort that isn’t trying to invisibly convert community affairs into a pay cheque. That’s how Cortes used to be. The unselfish community spirit was a large part of what made Cortes so special. It’s good to see straightforward fundraising that takes responsibility for our own affairs without trying to sneak our hand into someone else’s wallet. That’s how Cortes used to think before city money upset the delicate local balance. But I can’t help remembering how Ken Hansen handled lake pollution. With due allowance for “baseball bat politics” and a few other rough edges, that was an era when few things of importance on Cortes went astray. Did the old timers run to scientists for answers and get sidetracked in an extravaganza to pay them, or did they personally study and test the problem themselves until they thoroughly understood it, and then implement an inexpensive, practical solution? (like suddenly dropping the water level to flush out pollution by clearing the outflow just before temperature rises in spring) ... and then figure out a 2, 5 and 10 acre settlement plan and bylaws to prevent further density problems? (which is exactly how they responded to the 1/3 acre subdivision at Austin Road).
Important Contribution
Comment by Mark Braaten on 16th September 2014
Thanks Richard.

You make some very good points and your article is well written. I also observed the unusual water level conditions last winter, probably the most significant difference compared to the previous year. It must certainly be an important factor to consider.

Underground flow must be at least as important a factor as surface runoff. Septic systems mix large volumes of fresh water with organic compounds that travel in an anaerobic environment where they cannot compost or enter a nutrient cycle until they flow into a living body of water.

We should first allocate the available resources wisely for research. We are fortunate to have access to scientific studies as part of the information considered. We also have many intelligent and experienced community members who will contribute their knowledge if there is an openness to networking as a community. Once we have an accurate understanding of contributing causes we can proceed with the full range of remediation, both simple and complex if required.

Emotion is part of balanced intelligence. It should not be considered inferior to the intellect but needs to be balanced with the intellect providing the force to take action.
More on lake algea bloom
Comment by Carole Thacker on 13th September 2014
I am not a scientist but .......
we all have to be careful and prudent with septic, etc I feel that there has not been many changes around the lakes. Gundflint Lake had algea too and there are almost no density changes there. One of the main sources of nitrogen into the lake is the swamp at Kwas Bay. This was drained into the lake in the spring. A beaver dam was broken up and then alot of swampy water went into Hague lake in one big whoosh. It flooded the yard of the property across the road from the swamp. Apparently another swamp over by Gundflint was let go around the same time. In my opinion this added a huge amount of nitrogen and all the other stuff that grows in the swamp, into the lakes in a huge glug, not trickling in over the course of the spring.
Also, the lake level was, and still is high because the oulet is blocked. The algea had nowhere to go.
The ditches in the area from Beasley Rd, Syskin Lanes, Kwas Bay and Mansons all drain into the lake. I believe there are similar drainages on the Gunflint side. The water and other things come into the lakes and need to go out again. The channel needs to be kept clear of logs and beaver dams so the lakes can drain. This is not a salmon stream as the salmon could not get up the Taka Mika so there is no concern about that. If nothing else the swamps channels should be kept open so the drainage takes place over time, no all at once.
Our lake is clear and beautiful once again. The water is sweet. I hope the algea ate all the nitrogen from the swampy water and died.