Cottage Guide

Ask a Cottage Expert: The Environmentalist

In this series, we ask professionals our cottage-related questions. See more Ask A Cottage Expert in our Cottage Guide (on newsstands now or order it here)!

Meredith Brown, Ottawa Riverkeeper. Photo by Dwayne Brown.
Meredith Brown, Ottawa Riverkeeper. Photo by Dwayne Brown.

What can cottagers do to protect their shorelines?
Keeping shorelines as natural as possible is of number one importance. Ninety per cent of aquatic species here need the shore at some point in their lives. Some people think that their own shoreline is small, so what difference does it make? But there’s a domino effect when you keep it natural. It helps everything.

How do cottagers inadvertently hurt their own lake or river?
If you have an older cottage, its septic system might come from a time when regulations were nonexistent, and not all jurisdictions are good at doing inspections. Some are in flood plains, so when the water table gets high, whatever is in the septic system gets released. Then it gets in your lake. Making sure your septic is above the water table is really, really important.

What are some problems you’re seeing in our region’s lakes?
We are seeing a proliferation of invasive aquatic species (plant and/or animal) combined with excessive nutrients, typically phosphorus. There’s a lake in Renfrew County that has a combination of zebra mussels and excessive phosphorus. Now the lake has annual algal blooms. When the blooms release toxins, people can’t swim in the water; dogs and people can’t drink the water, even when filtered. There’s a balance in nature we take for granted. We typically don’t notice it until it’s out of whack, and by that time, it’s not easy to solve.

How does Ottawa Riverkeeper work with cottagers to make sure the watershed stays healthy?
The Ottawa River watershed is huge. Cottagers and fishermen are our eyes and ears. They help us figure out what’s going on. They tweet us. They call our pollution hotline, sometimes anonymously (@ottriverkeeper, (888)9keeper). Their concerns range from complaints about trees to zebra mussels to an old wrecked boat in front of their place. It’s a complicated watershed with jurisdiction held by the federal government, Ontario, Quebec, and municipalities. We help them figure out who is responsible for what.

How can Ottawans help keep their watershed clean through their everyday actions?
In your cottage or your house, you have control over the products you use. Phosphorus creates algae, which can be toxic. Cleaning products and fertilizers should be phosphate-free. Another issue we’re running into right now is microbeads [in toothpaste and facial scrubs]. They’re invisible, but they’re all through our waterways: in fish, in birds. They should be avoided. Avoid anything with the ingredients polyethylene and polypropylene, but even easier than that is not buying products that claim to be scrubbing or whitening. It’s these products that have the microbeads, and they don’t really even do anything.