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Opinion: Good news! There should be less poop in Alta Lake now

Who doesn't love a good news story?
Whistler's lakes are a gem—let's treat them like it.

One of the best things about moving to Whistler (particularly if you do so blindly) is slowly uncovering its natural scale.

I had never spent time in the resort before moving here, and so I spent my first few months marvelling at each new discovery—a Valley Trail offshoot here, a hidden little hiking path there, a rushing river with a mini set of rapids tucked away in the forest.

But for my money, Whistler’s real summer selling point is its collection of pristine mountain lakes.

I’ve always loved the way Roger McCarthy, former Whistler councillor and organizer of Whistler’s annual Great Lake Cleanup, describes our lakes, so I gave him a call to see if he’s still got it.

“The reality is, I’ve worked in resorts all over the world, and some of them are on huge lakes … but Alta Lake [in Whistler], and the connection of the lakes, also, is magical,” McCarthy said.

“If you were planning a resort, designing a resort or doing something along those lines, you’d end up with Whistler … The magic of this place is just extraordinary, and it’s 12 months a year. And the lakes are a significant piece of it.”

Yeah, he’s still got it.

As the organizer of the Great Lake Cleanup—the annual one-day lake-cleaning blitz that coordinates a small army of volunteers and divers to scour all local water bodies for loose trash and sunken treasures—McCarthy himself has been instrumental in keeping Whistler’s lakes clean and pristine over the past decade (stay tuned—the dates for this year’s Great Lake Cleanup are TBD).

But he also credits the work of the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) around things like capacity management in recent years.

“I’m happy about what I’m seeing and how the municipality is responding,” McCarthy said.

“We just need to think more about what are the capacities … I think it’s absolutely critical that we continue to do whatever we can to support the health of the lakes.”

A new Lakes Management Options Report now on file at municipal hall will help with that goal—and finally having the homes on West Side Road attached to the municipal sewer system can’t hurt, either.

Going back several years, Ian Spooner, head of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Acadia University, has studied core samples in Whistler’s Alta and Lost Lakes—the former lake home to significant development nearby, while the latter has largely avoided those pressures.

In the case of Alta Lake, core samples have showed copper and arsenic levels returning to normal background levels after spikes in the 1880s with the advent of the PGE Railway and Pemberton Trail, and the 1960s, when some believe copper was dumped into the lake to rid it of an invasive species, a potentially harmful strategy that was more common at the time. 

Meanwhile, productivity and human-caused “nutrient loading”—signalled by an increase in nitrogen—have steadily increased. 

“With nitrogen, it’s a signal of human nutrient loading—so poop and pee,” Spooner said at a Whistler Museum presentation in 2019. “And it’s not going back either.”

I’ve never forgotten Spooner’s “poop and pee” quote, because it’s both disgusting and remarkably effective communication for a professor-scientist-type (I don’t care who you are—your ears perk up when you hear someone, anyone, say those two words).

With the homes on West Side Road finally connected to municipal sewers, I was anxious to hear if Spooner believes our long, local discomfort is finally coming to an end—and I am happy to report that he believes connecting the homes to the sewer system is “excellent” news.

“Hugely positive, and hugely positive for the lake, because it just has so much pressure through use, and it’s really in a funny way like a huge, huge swimming pool for the tourist community,” Spooner said.

If we’re careful, the lakes can likely absorb the pressure from resident and tourist usage, “as long as we’re not adding to the load,” he added.

“From a water quality point of view, that would be a huge thing, having those [homes connected to the sewer system], and I would expect if I was coming back in 50 years … that what you’d see is a change in your record, a very strong change towards a lower nutrient environment, which is good for all sorts of things, but I think it’s really positive. 

“It’s a good news story, in my book.”

I agree. Any time we can get less poop and pee in the water we swim in, it is good news.

As for Spooner’s research into Whistler’s lakes, he says there are always opportunities for follow-ups, but the reality of his work means Spooner is usually only called in once the proverbial poop has hit the fan (or sunk to the bottom of the lake, as it were).

“I’d probably have my sorry butt in Whistler within a week if there was some major fish kill, or if there was some tourist who got desperately sick with some kind of waterborne disease, but that hasn’t happened,” he said.

“And so until that happens, people are sort of in the mode of, ‘Well, OK, we’ll just surf on this and let it be’—it’s kind of that catastrophic principle, that nothing is important until it’s catastrophic.”

We like you, Ian, but if those are the prerequisites for your next visit, we are perfectly fine not seeing you again for a little while.

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