Why We Exist
It’s a bright-blue, warm spring day in early June. Forty grim faced people are squeezed into a community hall to talk about the state of their lake. Comments ricochet around the room: “I used to swim here as a child, but wouldn’t chance it now”; “it’s a long walk to the water”; and, “the lake stinks”. The realization of all the incremental and insidious changes of the past decades now cascades upon them.
They chafe at the unfairness of it, that they are stuck in a community hall faced with these changes, instead of being out, enjoying their little piece of paradise. “We’ve got to fix it”, “we want our children to play here”, and the equally as telling comment, “the value of my property is dropping” embody the worried comments of the crowd. In the transition from awareness to action, we’re still a ways from an understanding that this is no small repair job, a circumstance that won’t be turned around tomorrow. “We just want it back to the pretty little spot it was.” That may be wishful thinking, given the rapid escalation in the ageing process of the lake, exacerbated by shoreline development and nutrients delivered from the watershed.
It may well be that the lake never was quite the “pretty little spot”, given the tendency of most central Alberta lakes to be high in nutrients, naturally. Their lake was probably always subject to some algae blooms, but now they are happening most years. An old-timer in the group quietly confirms this with me, privately, during the coffee break. His observations are that the magnitude of problems has grown with lakeshore development and expansion of agriculture and acreages in the surrounding watershed.
Others would like to reach into their blame holsters and, like the gunfighters of old, point their .45 calibre fingers at someone else. Between the farmers present and the lakefront residents, there is a heated exchange over who did what and when to the lake. It is a natural human tendency to see the collective impacts of others, but harder to see your own personal role in the issues that result from a series of long, slow, cumulative changes. This group will take a while to realize the ownership of the issues includes all of them.
They listen politely, if albeit somewhat sceptically, to the words and images of our Riparian 101 presentation. This description of the ecological functions of their lake begins to help them unravel some of the mystery of the watershed, lakeshore and landscape under their tenure. Not all are instant believers, but it sets up a bit of uncertainty which can only be assuaged through more information.
Cows and Fish never sets out to educate people about their watershed in one blinding flash of knowledge. Rather, it is a process of building a cumulative body of knowledge, over time that creates, within individuals and the community, the capacity to make better or more appropriate decisions. The world we live in is a complex one, but some elemental knowledge is required to allow us to fit into it, in a way that doesn’t preclude options for the future.
– story written by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol., Provincial Riparian Specialist – Cows and Fish, with edits by Norine Ambrose