[Note: The following was first published in the June 2014 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2014 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
It’s a reality for some Albertans and a dream for many more—having a lakeshore cottage where the family can retreat from their busy lives and spend some quality time on or near water. With our growing population and fixed number of lakes suitable for cottage development, there is considerable pressure on municipalities to allow more lakeside cottages to be built. These days, many so-called cottages are no longer small weekend cabins but large and elaborate summer homes with all the conveniences of modern life. Unfortunately this increase in density and footprint size of cottages negatively affects lake water quality and the reasons people come to the lake.
Typically, if you have a lakeside cottage, you want a nice beach from which to swim and launch a boat. However, Alberta lakes are not known for their smooth sandy beaches, and many cottagers try to create beaches by clearing trees and shrubs from the shore and the water plants from the shallows. Sometimes sand is hauled to cover the muddy bottom (even though wave and ice action eventually carries away the sand that doesn’t disappear into the mud). The problem is the natural vegetation around and in a lake are important to the health of that lake. It takes up nutrients entering the lake and provide habitat for aquatic insects and fish.
If such habitat degradation only occurs at a few cottages around a lake, the effect is not large. Unfortunately, as the number of lakeside cottages increases and more owners want nice beaches, the impact of the cleared vegetation is devastating to fish populations and the general health of the lake.
What is often not understood by new owners of lakeside properties is that they cannot remove the vegetation or alter the landscape along the lakeshore without a government permit. Most land titles do not extend to the water’s edge and often not the riparian zone along the shore—the zone of land just above waterline where the vegetation is influenced by the water table. The riparian and lake bed areas are governed by several jurisdictions, from federal to municipal. Without a lawyer and a 3-D map, it is difficult for owners to understand the “dog’s breakfast” of regulations.
Water Body Legislation
Several pieces of legislation come into effect when considering making changes to water bodies or shorelines in Alberta. To name just a few, the federal Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) and the Fisheries Act have jurisdiction over water bodies themselves whether they be rivers, streams or lakes. As their names imply, the NWPA has jurisdiction over water bodies navigable by watercraft, and the Fisheries Act has jurisdiction over water bodies containing viable fisheries (both acts recently gutted by the federal government).
In Alberta, the Public Lands Act, the Water Act, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPA) and the Municipal Government Act describe the various provincial jurisdictions over water bodies. For example, the EPA has jurisdiction over all lands and water bodies concerning pollution and other issues. The Water Act seeks to protect water quality in the province, and as such has jurisdiction over water bodies and their riparian areas. The Public Lands Act governs the province’s ownership of the beds and shores of water bodies.
Then just to make things interesting, the Municipal Government Act allows municipalities to own reserve land along lakeshores, usually from the private property boundary to the bank of the lake and often includes the riparian zone. These reserves are supposed to allow public access to the lake and protect the bank and shore.
Confused yet? Well, you’re not alone. A new lakeshore owner, anxious to get his summer dream going, might not notice the boundary line on his property map and just assume he or she can do whatever he likes right out into the water. Vegetation is cleared, sand poured and permanent docking facilities are installed before anyone should ask whether permits were obtained. Of course, by that time, it’s too late—the damage has been done. The owner will have to pay a penalty and remove his developments, but the crucial lake habitat is gone.
But where does an owner go to learn from whom should he get what? The municipality having jurisdiction in the area (municipal district, county, or summer village) is a good place to start. They do issue building permits. However, if the owner wishes to change the shoreline or its vegetation, he will soon learn he has to go to the provincial government, specifically Public Lands of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development where the permitting process will be explained.
During that process, hopefully the owner learns that any alterations to vegetation and shoreline should be kept to a minimum. A trail through the shrubs and a temporary/seasonal dock often don’t require a permit because they have little impact on the environment.
Of course, the effect of a shoreline development doesn’t end with altering the shoreline and its vegetation. Use of the land above the riparian zone also affects that zone and the lake. People like to have nice lawns at their cottages, and like in the city, think it should be as green as possible. So lawn fertilizers are used. The problem with fertilizers is that most of them don’t stick with the lawn and eventually leach downhill to the lake. If still there, the riparian vegetation will intercept some of those nutrients but not all. The solution is relatively simple: if you must use fertilizers, use those with no phosphates (the second number in the fertilizer formula and the chief culprit behind lake algae blooms) and use them sparingly. In reality, lawns need very little if any artificial fertilizers if they are managed organically.
Other negative impacts include use of septic systems where the outflow finds its way to the lake and use of outhouses near the water. Some municipalities in recent years have outlawed outhouses and outflow septic systems on lakeshore properties (requiring septic tanks be pumped-out). However, the bottom line is that any development along a lakeshore will cause some negative impact on the lake water. The simple digging of a hole for a foundation increases nutrient flow to the lake.
The point here is that if we wish to maintain healthy lakes with viable fish populations, those lakes must have sufficient natural lakeshore to maintain water quality. The continued increase of cottage development only compounds the problem. Each summer now we hear about more blue-green algae blooms on more and more of our recreational lakes. As I have reported before, once a lake reaches a tipping point where algae blooms and fish kills are common place, it’s very difficult to bring the lake back to a healthy condition. How many ruined summers will it take for people to realize something must be done and that they are part of the solution?
Of course, cottage development is not the only culprit. Increased agricultural development has also increased nutrient flow. However, all these effects can be mitigated if people are willing to take the necessary steps. Are our governments willing to step up and actually protect our lakes?
For more information on managing shorelines and lakes, visit the Alberta Lake Management Society website.