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These Volunteer Organizations are Protecting Canadian Waters

Volunteer stewards work to protect our freshwater lakes, rivers and streams

A large, calm lake with a sandy shore.

Credit: Yi Ping Zhang

Many of us look at a lake in summer and see peace and inspiration—a place for boating, swimming or just a little bit of relaxation. For others, the relationship goes much deeper. When Max Abraham looks out across Saskatchewan’s Pike Lake, about 20 minutes south of Saskatoon, he sees home.

“You look at it a little differently when you live there,” he says. Abraham and his neighbours take pride in the habitat they share with walleye, pike, perch and other species. These folks recognize that their lake is a vital resource that sustains wildlife and provides food as well as opportunities for recreation—and they work hard to keep it that way.

Abraham, a retired school principal with a passion for the outdoors and the environment, does his part with the Pike Lake Cottage and Watershed Association. As a former president of the association, he has volunteered alongside his community to monitor water levels, rehabilitate the shoreline and raise funds for their initiatives. They also collaborate with the water security agency and scientific community to study the lake and participate in watershed planning.

All these projects rely on data, mostly collected by residents. “Almost everyone who lives out here has been a volunteer at some point,” he says.

An Important Role to Play

Across Canada, volunteer stewards play an essential role in their communities. They dedicate time to ensure that the ecological health of lakes, rivers and waterways is preserved. They advocate, fundraise and do community outreach—or become citizen scientists monitoring algae bloom and invasive species, measuring levels and testing water quality.

“Volunteers can get out more often, and the assessment is easy to do and does not require a science background,” says Kerry Royer, community engagement specialist with Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. Citizen science apps such as iNaturalist and eBird are easy-to-use tools that help collect data.

Citizen scientists in the Niagara region use the Visual Assessment Survey Tool (VAST). This program was developed by Kiersten McCutcheon, coastal science coordinator at Niagara Coastal, a nonprofit group that trains volunteers to collect data throughout the Great Lakes region. Volunteers snap photos of the shoreline, which helps researchers track changes. “The VAST program adds even more data, and the more data you have, the better,” notes Royer. Pictures are powerful tools—seeing is believing when it comes to education, advocacy and policy change.

A volunteer taking photos of the edge of a lake, there are trees in the corner and the water is calm.

These Community Groups are Taking Action

Often, water-quality issues aren’t addressed until they reach a noticeable state. In September 2014, Mattatall Lake in northern Nova Scotia turned an abnormal pea-green colour due to blue-green algae bloom, and the local community took action. “Our lake was not very built up and we didn’t expect this,” recalls Donna Spracklin, who stepped up as volunteer president of the Mattatall Lake Stewardship Association. Prior to 2014, residents had noticed some green globs, but didn’t realize how quickly the toxic algae can spread. “We were naive and ignorant,” she says.

Once aware of the severity of the issue, more than 50 residents rallied to raise funds for research, in conjunction with Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change. The algae bloom eventually abated, but the community’s work has not. Residents continue to monitor water quality and educate themselves about aquatic plants and other species that share the lake. A volunteer collects data about the lake’s declining loon population and shares it with Birds Canada, the country’s national bird conservation organization. Floating platforms were built to support loon nests. Initial attempts were unsuccessful, but more elaborate platforms are in the works for this summer.

“We need to learn to live more within the natural environment to allow our native species to maintain their home there, too,” says Spracklin. “We need to share.” With 20 percent of the world’s freshwater in our care, we also share a responsibility to sustain its health—one test tube at a time.

A group of volunteers gather outside, the grass is green and there are trees behind them that have lost their leaves. There is also a lake behind them.

5 Ways to Help Maintain Lake Health

  • Reduce the use of high-phosphorus fertilizers and detergents that can encourage the overgrowth of lake algae and aquatic plants.
  • Go slow when boating near the shoreline—the wake can cause erosion.
  • Don’t flush medications or chemicals down the toilet.
  • Preserve existing shoreline vegetation. It helps fend off erosion, filters water and prevents flooding.
  • Keep septic systems clean and sealed to prevent pathogens from seeping into groundwater.