EDMONTON — Thousands of Alberta cottagers and homeowners are anxiously waiting to see if a provincial regulator will allow a large cattle feedlot to be developed near a popular and environmentally sensitive recreational lake.
Pigeon Lake, about 100 kilometers southwest of Edmonton, is home to about 5,800 seasonal and permanent residents and attracts about 100,000 visitors a year to its green surroundings, beaches, boating and fishing.
But many say it’s threatened by a proposal before the Natural Resources Conservation Council. G&S Cattle of Ponoka, Alta., wants to pen 4,000 cattle about four kilometers west of Pigeon Lake in addition to its current operation of more than 1,000 animals.
These new animals would produce around 36 tonnes of manure per day, which would be spread over around 1,000 hectares, or almost 6% of the entire lake catchment area.
“I’ve never seen so much concern since I’ve been at the lake,” said Don Davidson, mayor of Grandview Summer Village, who has been in the community since the 1980s. that.”
Greg Thalen, head of G&S Cattle, declined an interview request.
Pigeon Lake sits in a valley like tea in a half-full cup, filled by runoff from the surrounding land and drained by a small stream. Studies have shown that its waters persist for up to 100 years, making it very vulnerable.
In the past, runoff nutrients from fertilizers and sewage fueled foul-smelling algae blooms so bad they coagulated shorelines and made headlines.
“We were getting algae advisories almost every year,” Davidson said.
Since then, he said, residents have been cleaning up.
The use of cosmetic fertilizers has been banned. The septic fields have been replaced. South Shore municipalities have spent more than $30 million on wastewater treatment. Local groups have spent millions managing runoff, winning two provincial environmental awards.
In 2018, 12 summer villages, two counties and four First Nations approved the Pigeon Lake Watershed Management Plan, which attempts to limit the seepage of nutrients such as phosphorus into the lake and specifically states that parks fattening are not suitable.
Due to the slow renewal of lake water, progress is slow. But there it is.
“We saw a reduction in the number of algae warnings and the severity of blooms,” Davidson said.
“We have reduced the nutrient load. We are looking to see long-term improvement in the lake.
Feedlot expansion threatens that, said Dave Labutis, whose family has farmed in the area for three generations.
“Most of the people who live in the area are farmers or former farmers,” he said. “Our hearts support agriculture.
“Our problem is the intensity of this. There are small farms all over this area, but none of them have these kinds of cows.
“It’s just too close to the lake.”
Jeannette Hall, a former Alberta Environment conservation officer for Pigeon Lake who studied the area, linked cattle operations to nutrients in the water.
Research conducted for the management plan concludes that while about five percent of the phosphorus in the lake comes from residential development, about a quarter comes from stream runoff.
Streams flowing from parts of the watershed that do not have such operations carry up to about 50 kilograms of phosphorus into the lake each year. The two streams that bring about 1,000 kilograms, Hall said.
“It just jumps off the page. Feedlots are the largest contributors.
These coves empty near two popular beaches, a provincial park and a conservation area.
The Pigeon Lake Watershed Association has filed a statement of concern with the regulator. So have more than 300 inhabitants.
Wetaskiwin County, while recognizing the primacy of agriculture in the region, asked the regulator for an environmental assessment of the project.
The council does not normally require environmental assessments, spokesman Andy Cumming said. Applications are judged against standards aimed at ensuring that feedlots will not contaminate groundwater, have adequate runoff controls, and be sufficiently far from water bodies and neighbors.
Once a decision is made, those deemed directly affected by it can appeal. A review board may then convene a public hearing.
The board is expected to rule on G&S’s application in mid-May.
Catherine Peirce of the watershed association said the rules for how Alberta assesses large livestock operations need to change.
“I think they get an easier ride,” she said.
“In Alberta, beef production is valued and plays an important role in our economy. But there needs to be a review of the legislation to better understand how to manage these types of impacts.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 2, 2022.
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press