Watershed report: Out of sight, out of mind

Alyssa Belanger
Lesser Slave Watershed Council

You dump something down the drain, and presto, it’s gone!
Not really, but it does seem like a disappearing act! What goes down the drain in the homes of the people living in our watershed can end up in Lesser Slave Lake.

We use water every day, and we affect its cleanness. It’s easy to see garbage or debris floating in the water, water with soap suds, or even the sheen of oil on the water’s surface. Contaminated wastewater affects all our waterbodies; making beaches unattractive, closing fisheries, and affecting tourism opportunities in our region. Imagine your favourite lake activity: swimming, laying on the beach, fishing, or maybe paddling.

We often don’t think about where things end up once they are down the drain. So, where does the water go when you flush the toilet? Well, that depends. If you live in town it goes to the water treatment system, through a series of aerobic and anaerobic (oxygen/no oxygen) digestion processes before being released into the environment after passing water quality tests.

Anything you put down the drain that employees or bacteria don’t physically remove ends up in our waters. This is different than what happens out of town, and down the storm water drains. Some rural residences are connected to county sewage system as well, but chances are if you live out of town you have a septic system. In our watershed there is one waste water treatment plant that uses biological and mechanical processes to treat waste and discharges continually into a treatment wetland. This plant is able to filter pollutants including nutrients out of wastewater. The technology is better but the costs of building and using this type of system is a major barrier.

No matter where you live though, eventually, the water you flush could end up in your glass of water. I know that sounds gross, but it’s true. Because of the water cycle, the amount of water on earth stays constant and continuously cycles around the planet, so we could be drinking water that was once in cacti in Arizona!

Many pollutants are not obvious to the naked eye. Some pollutants are easier to remove from water than others. Wastewater usually contains nutrients, which can exacerbate algal blooms. Though plants and fish need nutrients, excess nutrients overfeed algae which can deplete oxygen from the water as they decompose. Bacteria also decompose the organic wastes in our water. This process takes up a lot of oxygen and can impact the health of fish and other aquatic life in our lakes, rivers, and streams. Nutrients, effluent and other pollutants are ingested by small organisms, which are later consumed by ever larger fish and animals, this is called bioaccumulation. Because of bioaccumulation, animals (including humans) can be made sick, injured or even killed by pollutants.

So, what should go down the drain?

It’s best if you only flush your body’s waste and toilet paper, anything else can have negative impacts on both the plumbing/infrastructure and the natural environment. Water and anything typically mixed with water, such as toothpaste, soap, and shampoo, are the only thing that should go down our sink and shower drains. Preventing pollution in the first place is essential. We all have a role to play in ensuring toxins and excess nutrients do not enter our waters. When we use water wisely, we ease the burden on sewage treatment. Using water wisely means not wasting it and minimizing the number of contaminants entering our drains. Lake friendly practices can help us make choices to conserve and protect our precious water resources.

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