Protecting Special Spots

[Note: The following was first published in the July 2014 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2014 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

It was one of those special spots that friends keep as secrets among themselves because to tell strangers would ruin the reason they are special. “Have you been to Forgotten Lake?” my park-service boss asked me back in the mid-1960s. I admitted I hadn’t even heard of it. He told me he would have to remedy that. So, a week or so later, I was part of small group backpacking into this beautiful high-mountain lake that for some reason didn’t show on topographic maps. However, that fact hadn’t stopped it being stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout, because in those days in that park, trout were initially stocked from helicopters and the scuttlebutt was that many lakes had been stocked at random. However the fish got there, the lake was certainly worth the rock scramble to get there.

After we set up camp, we were treated to some of the best trout fishing I have ever experienced. The trout were eager and many were 30 cm (12 in.) long or better. That we could also enjoy a high-mountain environment with its spectacular scenery and breathtaking views of the night-time sky was icing on the cake.

I returned to that lake several times during my years working at that park. And like the others in our group, I kept the lake’s location to myself. Today, thanks to satellites, the lake does appear on maps, but it is no longer stocked. I don’t know whether it still holds trout.

Mayatan Lake-1

Mayatan Lake, Alberta–a special retreat from our ever-demanding lives.

Fast forward to the late 1970s, and I find myself living in Parkland County west of Edmonton. My fishing buddy hears of a lake in the county that has some great yellow-perch fishing and only a few people are aware of its presence, let alone that it has good fishing. Although this particular lake appeared on maps, it was just one lake among many in the area, and finding your way to it took a bit of navigational skill. The lake was Mayatan and it indeed was teeming with beautiful yellow perch of all sizes that provided many days of excellent fishing and tasty meals. Now, this lake was not as much of a secret as my Forgotten Lake. We often saw other anglers there but they were mostly local residents; few city dwellers knew of it. In those days, the lake was surrounded by agriculture lands that included some native riparian habitat around most of the lake.

Of course, secret places don’t remain secret for long. People can’t help but let more of their friends know, and those friends tell friends, etc. Sure enough, we were noticing more and more anglers on the lake. The quality of the fishing declined and then one year winter-kill struck the perch down for the count.

In the meantime, a housing development was created on the east side of the lake, improving the road system. Mayatan was a secret no longer. The perch eventually returned, but someone also introduced northern pike (unauthorized fish transplanting is illegal), and the lake became known as a fair pike fishery. The perch never regained their previous numbers and quality. However, winter kill does occur from time to time, and the fishing has not been great in recent years.

Like other recreational lakes in central Alberta, Mayatan is showing signs of eutrophication, or increasing concentrations of nutrients coming from the surrounding lands, supporting algal blooms and fish kills. Concerned residents and lake users have formed the Mayatan Lake Management Association (MLMA), similar to other lake management societies across central Alberta concerned with the health of the specific lakes their members use.

2014-05 Meredith-MayatanLake-2

Lakes are special places that deserve more protection than our governments have been willing to give.

Why is it necessary to form these societies? It boils down to the perceived lack of government action to protect our lakes. As I have related in this column many times before, government lake protection tends to fall between the cracks of the various jurisdictions: federal, provincial and municipal. It is too easy for each jurisdiction to pass the buck to another as no one agency takes responsibility for lake health. These lake management organizations, made up mostly of lakeside residents who have seen the changes over the years, are the squeaky wheels demanding action. However, being volunteer organizations, the work can be quite frustrating.

Despite the scientific data on the failing health of these lakes, often gathered by their own scientists, governments tend to side with new developments that bring more revenue to their coffers or stimulate the economy. Anything that dwells on what hasn’t happened yet just doesn’t count. So, we see more and more cottage development and continued lack of enforcement of existing regulations. In other words, a few squeaky wheels can be ignored, at least in the short term.

However, if the wheels increase in number and squeak long and loud enough, governments can be nudged into action. Over the last few years, more and more lakes have reported blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) blooms and resultant summer fish kills. In other words, what “hasn’t happened yet” is happening. In addition to the respective management societies, lake shore residents and lake users are demanding action from the government.

As many of you know, I have served on the Wabamun Watershed Management Council since its inception in 2006. In the early years we were supported by Alberta Environment, but that funding soon dried up. On our own, we raised the money to get a state-of-the-watershed report done (the first step in a watershed plan), which we did last year (available at www.wwmc.ca). In the meantime reports of blue-green algae blooms on other lakes hit the news media, and we had 200 concerned stakeholders show up at the launch of our report last July. Before that we were lucky to have 10 people show up at our meetings.

Then Parkland County started making noises about developing lake management plans, this after years of declaring that lake management was Alberta Environment’s responsibility. As well, under the Water for Life Strategy, the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance (NSWA) has stepped up to help lake management societies, including those for Mayatan and Wabamun lakes, since those lakes’ watersheds are part of the overall North Saskatchewan watershed. The NSWA helped the MLMA produce the Mayatan Lake State of the Watershed Report that outlined the current scientific and cultural information about the lake (report available on the MLMA website). They are also helping the association write its watershed management plan, designed to help land-use managers and stakeholders make decisions that sustain and improve the health of the lake.

At the end of May I attended a workshop organized by the NSWA and MLMA to help decide what was important to address in the watershed management plan. It was an interesting exercise, facilitated by the NSWA and included lakeside residents, government representatives and other concerned citizens. The workshop asked participants to discuss what issues concerned them about the lake, and what aspirations they had for the future of the lake and its watershed. I was impressed by the passion in the room and the willingness of people to work together. It gave me some hope that we might be able to protect some of these places that may no longer be secret but are definitely special.

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out  The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I write a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine.
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