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COP15 – Local Action

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HAPPY NEW YEAR to all and special thanks to Brian and the FANHCA team

This is a follow-up to Brian’s excellent piece on COP15, in which he urges us to act in North Hatley, while thinking globally. I totally agree that looking after our natural surroundings is key to our future. We need to learn to design with Nature, to treat her as our ally, not as an entity that we can abuse or control. Disastrous fires, floods, tornados and droughts are becoming commonplace events. They are unmistakeable signs of climate change and unless we significantly modify our relationship with Nature, they are likely to occur with increasing frequency. I will briefly come back to these issues in concluding this text.

But first, I’d like to focus on two of our most important natural assets, our lake and our river, which, after all, drew and are still drawing people to live here. We should remind ourselves that we are stewards of the beautiful landscapes which surround us, we do not own them. We are only here for a short time. Our job is to pass these gifts on to future generations unspoiled or in some cases improved, if we can repair some of the errors made in the past or still being made. 

We all know that the quality of Lake Massawippi has deteriorated in recent decades. We have seen the exponential growth of milfoil weed, recurrent blue-green algae blooms at the height of summer and most recently the inevitable discovery of zebra mussels. Excessive boating exacerbates some of these problems and should be addressed by the five municipalities who share the lake, but will also need action by other levels of government. However, we can and must take other immediate measures to alleviate damage to these precious resources.   

The Village has taken one important step to reduce pollution of the lake and river with its Écoroute d’hiver initiative, significantly reducing the quantity of salt residues entering our waterways. The next step should be to use existing bylaws to tackle other important sources of pollution linked to the chemical products that are still being used on many lawns and gardens. Our use of herbicides and pesticides, all of which are labeled as hazards to human health, are a perfect example of fighting Nature and were banned by the Village in 2010. Unfortunately, this by-law was adopted without any publicity or follow-up.

The same by-law bans powerful chemical fertilisers which, among other things, lead to excessive levels of phosphorus entering the lake and provoking blue-green algae blooms. Non-organic agriculture is an important part of this problem and Christmas tree production is probably the worst offender, using a panoply of products to grow the “perfect tree”. These activities are unfortunately beyond our control, but we must press for stiffer rules. However, domestic use or misuse of chemical fertilisers add significantly to the chemical load imposed on the lake and here we do have the tools to confront the problem. 

Here are a few words of explanation on the environmental impacts of these chemicals. If we use them in our efforts to achieve the “perfect” lawn or pest-free garden, we are causing much collateral damage. Healthy soil is full of microbial life which helps plants to grow. Organic farmers and gardeners stimulate life in the soil with healthy amendments and use other methods to keep weeds or pests to an acceptable level. In contrast, toxic chemicals destroy these organisms, creating lifeless soil ever more dependent on chemical input. They also kill many of the pollinators that are an essential part of our food chain or destroy the wildflowers on which they depend and they poison larger creatures, including birds and fish.

It is high time that the Village takes steps to remind citizens of these rules through information bulletins explaining the negative consequences of using chemicals on our properties and promoting ecological alternatives. 

Another bylaw targeting the health of the lake and river is the requirement to maintain or promote a wide vegetative strip along all waterfront properties, with a narrow opening permitted to reach the water’s edge. This buffer zone contributes to the health of the lake in several ways. One important role is to absorb and prevent harmful run-off, from properties and roads, from reaching the water. Too many lakeside property owners in North Hatley disregard this by-law and mow their lawns right to the water’s edge. It’s worth noting that Ayer’s Cliff undertook a detailed survey of waterfront properties in 2022 in a step toward ensuring compliance with this measure

The Village should encourage compliance with these bylaws in several ways, first of all by explaining to the public the purpose of these laws and proposing ways to conform. Other ways include drawing up a list of approved ecological lawn-care companies and, as in past years, offering appropriate small trees and bushes for vegetating the riparian strip (the waterfront buffer zone). Stiffer measures would need to be applied eventually to property owners who remain non-compliant after reasonable time limits.  

Of course, streams entering the lake must also be monitored and buffer zones must be restored or protected along their course. Blue Massawippi may need to step up its testing of streams entering the lake and river, to allow further steps to be taken to cut contaminants. Streams entering from the golf course should be a priority. While I know little about their methods of keeping their course green and dandelion-free, I suspect they could take useful lessons from the Waterloo Golf Club which has reduced the level of phosphorus in its ponds and streams by over 90% in recent years. 

Through local actions, we can contribute to global health and sustainability. We must at last recognise that we are all part of the problem and that we must all necessarily be part of the solution. Simple changes at the household level can make a difference. Although we cannot reverse many of the negative environmental changes that confront us with increasing frequency, we can still strive to mitigate some of the threats to the health of the planet with which future generations will have to cope. 

Each and everyone of us can reduce their environmental footprint in various ways, be it to turn down the thermostat a little, hang laundry to dry, encourage local food production, reduce our household waste, repair rather than throw out, drive less or car-pool, and so much more. We should learn to take the time to thoroughly evaluate our plans and activities in the light of the common good, not just what is good for us personally. and this can require more time and effort than we have allowed in the past. 

We are seeing more and more weather-related catastrophes around the world, including the forced migration of millions of refugees, fleeing drought, famine and rising waters. We cannot just hope or pray for a better future, we must work hard for it. We cannot wait for others to act, each of us can find ways to contribute to positive change. We are very lucky to live on this beautiful planet, but we must treat it much better … there is no escape route and whether other forms of life exist elsewhere in the Universe is highly irrelevant. We’re here to stay … or not to stay … it’s up to us. If we don’t repair the scars now, Nature will repair them after we’re gone.

Michael Grayson

PS The 1987 Montreal Protocol succeeded in banning the use of CFC’s world-wide, thus helping the planet’s all-important ozone layer to restore itself over a 30-year period. This gives hope for stopping other destructive activities and for eventual healing of scars that humans have inflicted on the planet. But we must bear in mind that the challenges facing us now are far broader and more complicated in their scope, and must in large part be resolved by us, not by government or by others.