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Opinion: We can’t protect what we don’t love

'Like most things in life, you get out of it what you put in'

Peering over the edge of our barge into the waters of Alta Lake, I can just barely make out the distinct black and white circle—an instrument used to measure water clarity known as a Secchi disk—some six metres or so below us.

By lowering the disk until we can’t see it, marking the depth, then raising it until we can see it again and marking that in turn, then averaging out the difference, my lab partner and I are helping collect baseline data on one of Whistler’s five beautiful lakes.

But there’s a problem. My eyesight is far superior to my partner’s, allowing me to spot the Secchi disk at a deeper depth.

A pair of fellow citizen scientists using the other side of the barge records an even greater discrepancy.

Not to worry, says renowned B.C. limnologist Rick Nordin, who is in Whistler to lead a LakeKeepers workshop for the BC Lakes Stewardship Society, organized by the Whistler Lakes Conservation Association (WLCA).

“There is variation between people’s eyesight, and acuity or glare or whatever, so it’s not an absolute value,” he says. “But it’s within plus or minus 10 per cent, usually, which is an acceptable variation.”

The findings of our five different pairs all landed within five per cent of each other, he notes when we finish.

That’s not to be flippant about the importance of getting it right—the provincial Ministry of Environment goes so far as to do checks on the equipment used by volunteer groups like the WLCA.

“It is so very important to make sure that the data is accurate, because if you’re going to make decisions based on it, you really want to be sure that what you’re measuring is good,” Nordin says. “And certainly the ministry doesn’t like to put data into their database which is not accurate.”

Our monitoring—which also includes recording the temperature and dissolved oxygen levels down to 16 metres—is taking place near the deepest point of Alta Lake, marked by an orange buoy off the northeastern shore. The lake has been under the watchful eye of volunteer, citizen scientist and WLCA member Jim Tyrer for the past two years, who comes out every two weeks to collect data.

“My wife and I, we purchased a home on the lake here about seven years ago, and I don’t think we really could have imagined what an impact, a positive impact this lake was going to have on our lives,” Tyrer says at the workshop.

“But it’s been just wonderful.”

While the lake is about 17.5 metres deep where we’re collecting our data, we can only see to about six metres—but that’s well above the two-to-three-metre clarity found in most urban lakes, according to Nordin.

“The other end of the scale is Gun Lake, which is over by Lillooet—the Secchi disk on that is typically 20 to 22 metres,” he says, to gasps and exclamations from the lake nerds assembled around him.

I’ve never been to Gun Lake, so I close my eyes to try to imagine its pristine, 22-metre clarity. It’s beautiful.

“It’s the geology—there’s no nutrients in the watershed,” Nordin explains. 

“So there’s no nutrients, no minerals in the water at all … It’s high elevation, and the water that’s coming in is cold.”

This is but a brief glimpse into Nordin’s densely informative, one-and-a-half-day LakeKeepers workshop, itself a condensed version of a full-term university course (you can get into the proverbial seaweed by downloading the LakeKeepers manual here).

But for Nordin, the takeaway message is less about the hard science, and more about instilling a love for the lakes.

And his passion for his craft is contagious.

“You’ve got five lakes here, five gorgeous lakes, within the municipality. They are an absolute treasure … and they really deserve all of the attention and management use that they get,” he says.

“So consider the Whistler lakes to be of extreme value. I mean, if you had to create a lake, what would it cost you?”

Preaching to the choir, Rick, but for anyone who wants to learn more about Whistler’s lakes—and how we can better care for them—citizen science is the ticket.

The more people we can get involved in data collection, the better, Nordin believes.

“It is just so essential that we gather real, quantitative data for making decisions, and this is the best way to do it. Governments try their best, but they’re, at best, not terribly organized, and not well funded,” he says.

“So I’m convinced, and [that’s] why BCLSS was put together, was because of my observations that volunteers do a wonderful job.”

Having lived on the shores of Alta Lake since 1971, where swimming with their four kids was a regular occurrence, Tom and Peggy English have a special appreciation for Whistler’s lakes—one of the reasons they helped co-found the WLCA in 2020.

The couple are founders “in the sense that two other chaps were looking for somebody to do the lead work for free,” Tom jokes. “So that was basically my beginning, and then of course I’ve gotten very interested since then.”

For the past two years, Tom and Peggy have made regular visits to Lost Lake, Secchi disk and dissolved oxygen meter in tow, to gather data from the lake.

From the end of Lost Lake’s famed “nudie dock,” the couple carefully record their measurements, to be archived alongside similar data gathered from this and Whistler’s four other major lakes by citizen scientists much like themselves.

Taken together, the data forms a baseline from which we can determine any changes over time—a simple task, but important stuff, in the grand scheme of things.

It’s long been an adage of environmentalists that we can’t protect what we don’t love; can’t love what we don’t know. Workshops like LakeKeepers go a long way towards educating the general public about the natural world—but it’s a two-way street, and like most things in life, you get out of it what you put in.

“We love doing Lost Lake monitoring,” Peggy says—even if you never quite know what to expect when you arrive.

“From that dock, which is the clothing-optional dock, we also have, sometimes, naked people watching us,” she adds with a laugh.

And every now and then, those naked people take a keen interest in the work—like a New Zealand man (who just so happened to be a scientist himself) who offered to assist Peggy during one of her trips to the dock.

She agreed—on the condition that the man clothe himself first.

Who said being a citizen scientist was boring?