Today in the News: St. John river thriving, evolving, director of rivers institute reports (TJ)
Mighty St. John thriving, evolving, director of rivers institute reports
New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal
Wed Jul 17 2013
Byline: Chris Morris Legislature Bureau
FREDERICTON - After being pronounced both dead and dying numerous times throughout the past century, New Brunswick's beautiful St. John River - the Rhine of North America - has roared back to life and continues to improve in terms of water quality.
More than ever, New Brunswickers can take to the St. John for boating and swimming with confidence that they likely will not encounter human, animal or industrial effluent floating along with them in the broad expanses of the river.
Allen Curry, director of the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick, said on Tuesday that while the water of the St. John continues to improve thanks largely to improved wastewater treatment, the river nevertheless is changing.
The institute has been studying the St. John for more than 10 years and is now widening its research to develop indicators and thresholds of change in rivers as a way of monitoring the impact of human activities.
"We're already seeing the impact of climate change on our rivers," Curry said in an interview.
"The salmon in the St. John River, for example. It doesn't look like the river is ever going to get any cooler again. We could take out all the dams and it still would be warm, and it is probably too warm now for Atlantic salmon. So over time we will see the loss of the Atlantic salmon from the St. John."
He said salmon already have vanished from Maine's rivers and he said the same will happen in New Brunswick.
"In the end, that will be because of our warmer climate," Curry said.
"We will see that right across the province. That doesn't mean all of the fish will go away, just those fish like Atlantic salmon and trout, which we tend to think of as our New Brunswick fish - those will be the hardest hit. Other species like smallmouth bass and yellow perch will keep going up in numbers. It's good news for them. How fast will it happen? It's already underway. I would suspect in 50 years our fish communities will look different from what they are today."
Curry's assessment of water quality is bolstered by a newly released Fraser Institute report on the state of Canadian waters.
"Overall, the evidence suggests that water quality in New Brunswick is overwhelmingly good and has improved over time, leading to a healthier aquatic ecosystem," states the Fraser report, called Canadian Environmental Indicators - Water.
Over the past 100 years, Curry said the St. John River has been affected by everything from massive log drives to the construction of hydro dams. As New Brunswick's population and economy grew, homeowners, industrial enterprises and communities flushed their waste straight into the mighty St. John, trusting it would all be carried out to sea.
The accumulation of effluent over the years prompted growing concerns until the 1970s, when the St. John River Basin Board was formed to get to the bottom of the river's ailments.
Curry said ultimately, improved wastewater treatment was identified as the key issue to improving water quality.
"It's our activities - we're the ones who created the problems and now we have to find solutions to some of these problems."
Curry said wastewater treatment has improved tremendously in the past few decades, but he said the challenge is to maintain high standards.
"Everything is holding in place in terms of the infrastructure we have," Curry said.
"However, as infrastructure gets older, you can appreciate it breaks down. A lot of maintenance needs to go into sustaining those wastewater facilities. That can be a challenge especially for smaller communities trying to keep their sewage treatment plants operating."
He said other areas of concern looking ahead include the growing threat posed by toxic algae blooms - another downside to warming waters.
Last year, the New Brunswick Health Department advised people to be extremely cautious of the blooms, especially the potentially dangerous blue-green algae.
"While not all algae blooms are problematic, blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, can produce microcystin toxins, which may cause skin, eye and throat irritation and may lead to more serious health effects if consumed," said Dr. Eilish Cleary, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health.
Curry said the algae blooms are an emerging issue in New Brunswick that need to be taken seriously.
"Everything is warming up, including our lakes," he said. "Many New Brunswickers have never seen these blooms before and don't really understand why they are happening and where they are coming from. We need to do a lot of work on that question."
And because bacterial counts can fluctuate in New Brunswick's rivers and lakes, Curry said the New Brunswick government should consider following the example of other provinces that provide water quality updates for local beaches.
"It would be good to see monitoring and reporting for the beaches," he said, noting it is an expense the province is unlikely to undertake in these times of tight budgets.
Curry said that especially below the Mactaquac Dam, the St. John River is an oasis of life and is home to more than 50 species of fish.
"It is the greatest diversity of fish species in eastern North America," he said. "Everything is really good there, except for species like salmon and trout."
In addition to that, the St. John River has never lost its beauty and its sense of history and continuity for New Brunswickers.
"I've had a chance to travel on rivers across the country, and the St. John is one of the most beautiful rivers in Canada," Curry said.
"I tell people there are some classic drives you need to take in your lifetime, and one of them is the drive up the St. John River on the old highway, especially if you can do it in the fall when the trees are a blaze of colour. It is one of Canada's most spectacular scenic drives."