The North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper ensures that we have a swimmable, drinkable, and fishable North Saskatchewan River. One of the ways that you can contribute to this goal is by reporting water pollution. Last week while giving a water presentation to a grade 4 class, I was asked by a student, “what does water pollution look like?” I was very impressed by the question, and it made me realize how hard it is to describe water pollution. One of the biggest challenges of reporting water pollution is being able to recognize what is and is not normal. A part of this challenge is that some indicators of pollution like oil and foam can also occur naturally in water. There are tricks to differentiate between natural and artificial oils and foams in water. If you want to help but don’t know how, read on to learn about what water pollution is and how you can report it!
Let’s start off with an easy one. If you see a big pile of garbage floating in the water, that is clearly water pollution. We know that plastic does not grow in our lakes and rivers. If you see garbage floating in water, and if it is safe to do so, pick it up and dispose of it properly! Not all forms of garbage are safe or easy to clean up, so don’t feel obligated to pick up anything remotely dangerous. If you see garbage that you can’t clean up, TAKE A PICTURE! After you take that picture make sure to share it. You can share that picture on social media with the hashtag #swimdrinkfish, you can use the Swim Guide “Report Pollution” tool on the app and website, or you can report it to the city of Edmonton by calling 311.
Unfortunately, Edmonton’s sewer system is not perfect. We have what is known as a Combined Sewer System. When the underground sewers fill up with excess rainwater or snowmelt, that extra water (including raw sewage) goes untreated right into the North Saskatchewan River. While the city is working on fixing this, sewage pollution remains a threat to the water quality of the river. A couple of weeks ago, while participating in a cleanup of Irene Parlby Park, I found a shocking amount of those “flushable” wipes as well as some tampon applicators and condoms along the riverside. If you see these and don’t have gloves and garbage bags, like I did, you can still help. Just take a picture and report it on the Swim Guide or share it on social media!
Nature or Not
Another potential indicator for pollution is dead wildlife. Of course, in the natural world death is a part of life, so we cannot assume that any animal is dead from pollution. If you see a single dead fish floating in the water, that may not be a definite indicator for pollution. However, if you see a whole bunch of dead fish floating in the water, there is probably a serious problem. Regardless, I would recommend that you, once again, TAKE A PICTURE! Sharing that picture on the Swim Guide is an important citizen-science initiative to collect proof of pollution.
Oil pollution can be very harmful to aquatic plants and animals, however, normal and unpolluted water can sometimes seem oily. If you see oily-looking water, poke it with a stick or drop a rock on it. If the sheen separates into smaller pieces with jagged platelets it’s most likely normal bacteria (pictured below), but if it reforms it is most likely petroleum. I’m sure you get the drill now, but what do you do if you see oil pollution? TAKE A PICTURE!
Foam is another mystery pollution. It can be totally natural, and it can also be a sign of pollutants. Natural foam forms when organic matter is being stirred up and interacts with air. Normal foam on water is usually off-white with an earthy or fishy smell (pictured on left). On the other hand, when foam is unnatural it often has a perfumy scent and a bright white colour (pictured on right). The difference is very noticeable in pictures, so naturally (or unnaturally), you should TAKE A PICTURE!
Photo Credit Left: Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15018761
Another form of pollution that can be very tricky to identify is algae. Algae itself is a natural part of any body of water. However, it is quite common to have serious blooms of blue-green algae in lakes across Alberta. This type of algae (also known as cyanobacteria) can release toxins which are harmful to humans and animals. If you see a huge bloom of algae, just ignore it… JUST KIDDING! Please take a picture and post it to social media or share it on Swim Guide and it can be identified and managed.
Don’t be overwhelmed with your new duties as a photographer! It might seem too easy, but taking pictures and sharing them on the Swim Guide and/or on social media provides an extremely important body of pollution evidence. This evidence can be utilized by researchers to identify sources of pollution to stop them directly, and to show exactly where the cleanup needs to happen! Most of us have our river-saving devices in our pockets all of the time. Even if you aren’t 100% sure if you’re looking at water pollution, send it to the Swim Guide or share on social media with #swimdrinkfish and we can make sure to clean it up or solve the problem! In Edmonton, you can report pollution by calling 311. Alberta also has a 24/7 line for environmental emergency reporting at 1-800-222-6514. Thanks for helping us keep the river free of pollution!
“Blue-Green Algae.” MyHealth.Alberta.ca Government of Alberta Personal Health Portal, 2018, www.myhealth.alberta.ca/Alberta/Pages/blue-green-algae.aspx.
“Combined Sewer System.” City of Edmonton, www.edmonton.ca/city_government/utilities/combined-sewer-system.aspx.
Flowers, Matt. “The Rule Everyone Should Follow to Save Our Waters.” Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, 2017, www.waterkeeper.ca/blog/2017/9/7/the-rule-everyone-should-follow-to-save-our-waters?rq=foam%2Bpollution.
“Identifying Water Pollution.” Ottawa Riverkeeper, www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/1_Identifying-Water-Pollution.pdf.
Moreau, Jennifer. “What Is That Oily Sheen on the Water?” Burnaby Now, 22 Feb. 2016, www.burnabynow.com/opinion/what-is-that-oily-sheen-on-the-water-1.2179165.
“Nonpetroleum Sheens on Water.” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 2017, www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/c-er4-07.pdf.