Sunfish Lake Water Quality

With such fabulous weather already this year there have been many swimmers in the lake already and thankfully our water quality seems good.  We have had our research team from the University of Waterloo out twice already this year doing testing and taking samples from the lake and tributaries.  Our monitoring program for cyanobacteria with Treefrog Environmental will begin on June 20th and continue throughout the summer with biweekly water testing for cyanobacteria and toxins.  Many thanks to Nancy, Rob and Bob for the dozens of volunteer hours they continue to provide to helping to ensure we have the best possible water quality.

While currently the water quality is good, almost all tests are showing that our nutrient levels (particularly for phosphorus and nitrogen) continue to be far too high and above the recommended thresholds to prevent algae and cyanobacteria outbreaks.  Thus, if conditions are right there is already too much “fuel” in our water/sediments potentially leading to significant and toxic algae outbreaks.  We need to continue to do everything possible to reduce and eliminate these surplus nutrients including:

– no fertilizers or pesticides

– no soaps, shampoos or detergents

– removal of all dog and pet waste from lawns

– septic pumping and upgrading of septic tanks with phosphorus removal systems

There is a good article about the increasing problems of algal blooms in this month’s Cottage Life Magazine: https://cottagelife.com/general/how-to-prevent-algal-blooms-at-your-lake/

You can also learn more at our website – www.sunfishlake.ca where research results, background articles, and all the information we are learning is being centralized.

Similar to last year there will be a levy of $450 in addition to our regular fee to help cover the costs of all the water quality monitoring and research to ensure the safety of people using the lake.  While the Executive realizes this is a significant outlay for each family, we have been able to leverage our funds with tens of thousands of dollars of additional funding, research, and laboratory testing with numerous partners including the University of Waterloo, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Guelph, the University of Ottawa. the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, the Ministry of Natural Resources Dorset Freshwater Lakes Center, the Grand River Conservation Authority, the Region of Waterloo Public Health Unit and others.

In fact, we were able to stretch the few thousand dollars we raised from our levy last year to obtain more than $100,000 worth of services and laboratory testing including daily visits and sampling from University of Western Ontario graduate students.  This research has provided us with an increasingly clear understanding of our ecosystem and the challenges it is facing.

This year’s efforts will continue to confirm these findings, monitoring water quality on a regular basis for safety, and start to trial some remediation measures.  In addition to our two research and monitoring teams we will have three other groups of researchers from area universities working on climate change, using artificial intelligence to identity harmful algae blooms, and drone hydrogeomatics that will be undertaking research at Sunfish Lake providing us with research results and extremely important data as we try to figure out our extremely complex and unique ecosystem.

 

Dog Waste

Dog waste that leaches into the ground and water sources is more of an issue than previously realized.  Below is an easy-to-read magazine article talking about the scope and seriousness of the issue.  While there is not much we can do about dog urine (short of banning dogs and outdoor cats which several lake areas have started to do), we urge all pet owners to keep their pets on a leash or confined to a specific area and to clean up from them right away – before solid waste starts to leach and break down.

Read the article here

Lake Monitoring and Research

We were extremely lucky in 2017 to be able to engage experts and students from numerous organizations, ministries, and universities to monitor, research and study in-depth our lake and surrounding watershed to better understand the toxic cyanobacteria outbreak we experienced at the end of the summer and well into the autumn of 2016.  While our budget was extremely modest (about $9,000 counting all the funds the Lake Association was able to pool) we were able to leverage tens of thousands of dollars of research grants, volunteer time, laboratory time/materials, and other resources.

Each individual water sample can cost hundreds of dollars to analyze and we were able to have labs at the University of Waterloo, University of Western Ontario, The Dorset Fresh Water Ecology Centre, and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Toronto Labs run hundreds of samples for us – testing and learning about the water in our creeks, lake surface, and lake depths week after week throughout the year.

While it is only one year of data we have learned a lot including:

– all of our creeks at one point or another (some consistently) exceed the acceptable levels for nutrients including phosphorus and nitrogen,

– most of our creeks have high levels of e-coli and coliform – even the seemingly “pristine” creeks coming straight from the forests,

– we have some very concerning nutrient levels coming into the lake from lawns and septic tanks,

– the lake bottom has exceptionally high phosphorus levels – likely accumulated over decades that is ready to fuel the next cyanobacteria outbreak at any time,

– the lake has a very unusual blob of Plantothrix (a potentially toxic) cyanobacteria that hovers in a huge cloud spanning the entire lake at about 7m depth but can rise up, drop down, and move in unison as required for optimal conditions or avoid attack by predators such as water based fungi or UV rays,

– the outlet water coming out of Sunfish Lake (the start of Laurel Creek) frequently exceeds acceptable levels of nutrients and e-coli – passing our issues further downstream too.

There was no single source of our problems found instead confirmation that we have many issues that we need to address including:

– doing whatever is possible to improve the water quality in our streams and tributaries,

– launching a war on phosphorus including soaps, shampoos, fertilizers, and other common nutrient sources,

– dealing better with pet waste and human waste – including upgrades to all of our septic systems,

– ensuring that geese, ducks, and seagulls do not contribute additional nutrients to the lake,

– finding ways to extract the surplus phosphorus from the lake,

– doing everything we can to prevent future cyanobacteria and algae outbreaks that can release toxins into the lake that can kill fish, animals, and humans.

The Water Team has developed a budget for the coming year to try to do as much as we can with our modest resources and keeping things realistic for area property owners – trying to balance what we need to be doing and the tremendous expense with what might be possible to do at a more reasonable budget and still have a considerable impact.  This includes a levy of $450 in addition to the usual $300 annual fee to be used towards:

– the tremendous costs of monitoring (monthly, semi-monthly and weekly depending on the time of year) using professional hydrologists so we can be confident that the lake water is safe,

– research /measurement/ data collection working with university, masters and Ph’d students to better understand our ecosystem so that we can develop effective solutions,

– learning more about the Planktothrix blob that blankets the middle regions of the lake – including how long it has been here, whether it is positive (contributing oxygen to our fish) or negative (creating toxins), etc.

– learning more about possible solutions.

Once again we are so lucky to have organizations willing to partner with us and devote considerable resources to helping us out – saving us tens of thousands of dollars on testing, laboratory costs, research, professional consulting fees, etc..

Many thanks to our Water Team that has spent hundreds of hours over the past year out in every possible extreme weather condition gathering measurements and samples, reading, researching, meeting, and trying to work on the leading edge of science (even artificial intelligence) to find the needed solutions.  Because of the unique meromictic aspects of our lake, the manageable size of our watershed and the unusual findings of the researchers we were able to assemble one of the largest, most comprehensive teams of cyanobacteria researchers in the world with several of the global leaders helping to advise on our situation.

While they continue to be confounded by our Planktotrhix blob, they are optimistic that we will be able to work diligently over the years ahead to get our nutrient situation under control and have a healthy, thriving lake ecosystem in the future – even in the face of global climate change.  It will take a lot of work and effort however, it is far superior to the alternative trajectory that we are currently on of increasing nutrient levels leading to increasing algae outbreaks, increasing e-coli and coliform contamination, declining water quality, increasing threats of toxicity, and eventually the lake becoming an unsafe cesspool as so many other lakes and water systems globally are experiencing.

Sunfish Water Testing and Research

Although ice currently covers Sunfish Lake our cyanobacteria testing and water research has been continuing throughout the autumn and winter. The researchers from the University of Western Ontario wrapped up their daily testing at the end of October and they have been running samples and growing our cyanbacteria, planktothrix, and aquatic fungi in their labs all winter. They hope to return in the coming weeks with Dr. Francis Pick from the University of Ottawa (Francis is one of the top freshwater researchers in the world) to take 1m to 3m long sediment core samples from the bottom of the lake. This will allow them to look back decades and tell us things about how the lake used to be. Apparently, It is easiest for them to set up their equipment and drill through the ice in winter than to work from boats at other times of the year.

Our University of Waterloo team is also doing analysis in their labs of the septic soil samples they collected from around the lake this past summer (they freeze-dried them) as well as doing analysis and heat-mapping of all the data collected over the past few years. Others such as Artificial Intelligence researcher and PhD candidate Jason Deglint continues lab work to perfect their cyanobacteria sensors, the folks at H2O Geomatics are continuing work on their aerial drone hyper-spectrum analysis software, and Jill Crumb from Treefrog Environmental is conferring with US researchers and looking into possible organic solutions using barley straw to help constrain the growth of our cyanobacteria in the future.

Overall, everyone feels that our research over the past year was a tremendous success. While we did not experience a cyanobacteria outbreak similar to the year before during the summer months as many had predicted, it was clear that we had all the right ingredients and likely only a cooler summer helped to prevent an outbreak until the very end of the season when we did record cyanobacteria issues in several locations around the lake in late November.

We ended up doing far more research and testing than anticipated and while we exceeded our initial budget estimate, we ended up receiving many tens of thousands of dollars worth of work and laboratory analysis of our water by the University of Western Ontario, the University of Waterloo Labs, the Ministry of Natural Resources Toronto Laboratory, and the Dorset Centre for Freshwater Lakes Research at no cost or just the cost of raw materials to the Sunfish Lake Association. Many days dozens of water samples from numerous locations around the lake and watershed and at many different lake depths were being analyzed for us for free instead of normally costing hundreds of dollars each because of so many hours of exhausting lab work for each sample.

While we have not found a single “smoking gun” or an easy “silver bullet” solution, we do now know:

1) That can now say with confidence that our creeks are frequently exceeding the thresholds for phosphorus and nitrogen enough to cause cyanobacteria outbreaks, though no consistent patterns have been found yet in the creeks and many high levels seem to defy any sort of logic or rationale – what should have been our most pristine creeks were sometimes showing the highest levels,

2) We have found that our levels of phosphorus at the bottom of the lake are exceptionally high despite it being an anaerobic environment devoid of oxygen and there is no easy way to remove this large amount of phosphorus that has built up over time and sits there waiting to fuel a cyanobacteria outbreak when the conditions are right,

3) Most interestingly we have discovered a significant layer of planktothrix (a type of cyanobacteria) spanning Sunfish Lake that seems to be able to move up and down throughout the water column en masse rising close to the surface when conditions are favourable, spending most of its time living in the middle depths of the lake (right before the thermocline to 5C), but then confoundingly having the ability to drop down into the lowest toxic layers of the lake and survive there quite happily when required.

The fact that this planktothrix is thriving in our dark, cold waters when cyanobacteria normally prefers warm, bright waters is fascinating our researchers. This type of cyanobacteria has the potential to be toxic however, as long as it is happy it apparently won’t spread its toxins that can be so damaging to our livers and brains. Interestingly, there is a theory that it is this plantothrix layer that is creating our high oxygen levels that our fish need and is one of the reasons why Sunfish has unexplicably such a thriving fishery for a small meromictic lake our size, so we might not want to hurry to try to eliminate it (if even possible) until we know a lot more about it,

4) In addition to the cyanobacteria issues, our lake is still seeing rising e-coli and fecal coliform levels with indications that there could be multiple sources for these nasty bacteria that regularly cause illness around the world.

More information, current research, and historical studies on Sunfish Lake can all be found on the excellent new Sunfish Lake Website – www.sunfishlake.ca – a fantastic resource and work in-progress under development by Kate Guy and her team at Digital Chaos.

Next Steps

Our researchers, team of water volunteers, and the Lake Association Executive are trying to figure out the optimal path forward. We need to continue to research these issues but it will be difficult to sustain the level of efforts of this past year and the thousands of hours that have gone into things. In addition to trying to do research to understand the issues and potential sources of excess nutrients in the lake, we will still need to do regular monitoring and testing of the lake water just to ensure that it safe to swim or use in any way at a level that is comprehensive enough to give us comfort. We will try to present a plan with proposed costs and required resources in the weeks ahead.

Overall this is an extremely complex issue that has serious long-term health and economic repercussions for everyone at Sunfish Lake. While we have been able to answer many questions and start to get a good feel for what is “normal” at Sunfish Lake, we have also uncovered almost as many confounding questions/issues that no one can explain – everything from this migrating planktothrix layer to why the lake was so unusually clear with an astounding 8m of visibility this autumn – unlike anyone can ever recall or has ever been recorded. Nobody can even explain to us seemingly simple things such as why the lake goes green each July as so far every theory has turned out to not be the cause when researched (latest theory is that it isn’t algae, or pollen, or bacteria, or cyanobacteria but actually a fungi in a complex relationship with our planktothrix).

It will be essential for us to continue a war on nutrients and do everything possible to try to reduce phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients within our lake watershed in an effort to reduce the likelihood of future cyanobacteria outbreaks with our lake becoming toxic and unusable like other lakes are experiencing.

Thanks again to Nancy Carlisle-Weaver, Rob Hutchison, Bob Hudgins, Sue Hart, and all our external researchers for all their extraordinary efforts in every sort of weather imaginable over the past year.

Water Monitoring and Phosphorus Research Teams

Our lake association volunteers including Nancy Carlisle, Rob Hutchison, and Bob Hudgins continue to invest many hours doing bi-weekly testing with our cyanobacteria monitoring and phosphorus research teams.  We hope to start to post detailed information and data from their work to the website soon.

Current Research

University Research Teams Update

In fact, the lake is changing so rapidly that the University of Western Ontario researchers are driving here every day of the week to get daily water samples.  They have been so intrigued by what they are seeing and what they are finding that they have persuaded Dr. Frances Pick, University of Ottawa Professor, Chair, and founder of the Center for Advanced Research in Environmental Genomics to undertake core sample research here at Sunfish Lake.

It is hoped that Dr. Pick’s research will be able to tell us about the lake environment and composition in earlier years and being one of the foremost water researchers in Canada it is great to have her insights here.

The UWO team is also hoping to launch their floating sample raft at Sunfish Lake within the next week.

Drone Research

Our aerial researchers doing the hyperspectrum analysis of the lake flew their first flight over the lake this past week and hope to be out again later this week doing more mapping and analysis.