Lake expert seeking Highlands support to improve environment

By Darren Lum

Putting action to words is what Dr. Norman Yan of ASH Muskoka does and hopes he can inspire others to follow the model he has been leading a region over.

Yan, who is a leading expert on lake health in Canada, spoke to a packed  audience about how taking wood ash can replenish calcium levels in the soil and the water at the 12th annual Lake Stewards Meeting on Saturday, May 14 at the Royal Canadian Legion in Haliburton.

Organized by the Coalition of Haliburton Property Owners Association (CHA), the event enabled Yan an opportunity to give his presentation, Ash Muskoka “ecological osteoporosis,” the loss of calcium from watersheds.

From the website of ASH Muskoka, we will deeply explore this idea that wood ash can safely be used to restore the well-documented damage to forests and lakes caused by widespread calcium (Ca) decline in Muskoka.

“Our goal is to identify, develop and foster solutions to monitor watershed stressors,” Yan said. “I come to believe that it takes only knowledge of what to do in the world to fix anything as long as our democracy is functioning and the core values that underpin the generation of that knowledge are humility and hope.” 

ASH Muskoka is an effort being led by the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed.

Two years of work has established HATSEO – Hauling Ash To Solve Ecological Osteoporosis. It’s a successful demonstration that wood ash recovered from residential wood stoves in Muskoka is both chemically safe and biologically appropriate for use in replenishing calcium levels in soil and water as stated on the ASH Muskoka website.

Yan is an authority on lake health, being only one of four Canadians to have received both the K. Patalas Award for research excellence in applied limnology, or the study of lakes, and the F.H. Rigler Memorial Award limnological research from the Society of Canadian Limnology. He also co-authored more than 200 publications on Canadian Lakes.

He invited up to six people from the audience to be part of the implementation in the Highlands. Yan said volunteers are the backbone and have been integral to the battle against the invasive species regarding snail removal in Haliburton County, and said in Muskoka, there have been more than 1,200 volunteers collecting ash.

“I’m just such a fan of that. If you can find the right thing that the public cares about to help fix a problem and learn at the same time generating knowledge and will. The knowledge of what to do and the will to do it then you’re halfway there to solving a problem,” he said.

He noted how every creature and plant need calcium.

A question was raised about if calcium levels are falling in the environment, is it a problem? It led to recognizing that calcium’s reduction needs to be addressed. There are three sources for calcium: the air in the form of rain or dust; soil or bedrock; downstream.

A question comes up regarding the watersheds and if they are suffering from osteoporosis, but what about wildlife. Such animals that require calcium to be healthy include what you would expect such as ones with shells. And, yet, there are fish such as the bass, which have more calcium than humans. They not only have it in their teeth and bones, but also their scales. From a 2019 report on Haliburton lakes, he said there were about 15 per cent of the lakes with less than two milligrams per litre of calcium, which leaves crayfish at risk and are dying. He said lakes used to be at three milligrams per litre and mystery snails thrive on five milligrams, so the goal is to raise calcium levels, but short of five.

Data collected during four decades evaluating calcium levels in lakes in the Dorset region showed a 35 per cent decline in calcium levels.

“I mean, this is a remarkably rapid change, and something that would have been unique in the post glacial history of these lakes. This would not have happened in any other time in the last 10,000 years,” he said. “But the absolute level of calcium today is more important than the trend. A 30 per cent decline, if you started with a 50 milligrams per litre to 40 milligrams per litre won’t hurt anything, but if you started at two and go down to one and half that starts to hurt things.”

He said if the lakes are low in calcium, then the land is also going to be low in calcium, so he’s taken his lifetime of efforts from the lake to inland. Eighty-five per cent of the land in Muskoka and Haliburton County is forested.

“Just like there are differences between animals there are dramatic differences in the calcium requirements between animals there are dramatic differences in the calcium requirements between plants,” he said. 

Information from the Haliburton Forest showed maple trees have three times the level of calcium percentage in its wood compared to birch and coniferous while the bark in the maple had 1.3 per cent compared to the bark of the birch, which had 0.1 and coniferous only 0.2. The leaves for maple and birch were equal at 0.8 while the coniferous was half that.

Yan said that calcium in plants like animals binds cells together and “has a support function in acids, nerves and muscles, in plants, its signalling and wound repair and stomata functioning and all kinds of important mechanisms.”

A Trent University paper published this year, Yan said, features a model about what has happened to calcium levels in the soil for a stand of maple trees at the Haliburton Forest since 1850. He said, showing a graph, that there was a half a ton of calcium per hectare lost in the last 150 years

 “So, this is bloody serious,” he said. “When the soil starts to lose an essential nutrients.”

For the first time since making the discovery about the importance of not just calcium levels, but also the levels of magnesium, potassium and the sodium.

“The big story for us has been the calcium decline, but if you look at the width of the other three bars, they are also declining,” he said, referring to the nutrients, particularly potassium and magnesium.

When it comes to why the calcium levels are declining he cited the analogy of a bank ATM.

“So, it’s how much money you have in the bank as a function of deposits and withdrawals. So, the glaciers are like your grandparents who may have started your bank account with the first $100. The glaciers contributed or might have removed the initial calcium and then the rock weathering will contribute to the bank, especially if it’s limestone or dolomitic or calcium rich rock, but not so much if it’s granite and then there are dust and precipitation inputs, which can occasionally been very substantial,” he said. 

He remembers how the alarm bells were rung for acid rain in the 1980s and how it led to the cleanup of the air, which has actually left the air with less calcium than before.  

Continuing the ATM analogy, he said, the withdrawal is made through the growth of the trees in Muskoka and Haliburton County. 

He said 80 per cent of the calcium in the watershed is in the trees.

Cut the trees and all that calcium is removed without any chance the trees will be able to grow back to the same height because there isn’t calcium to support their growth.

“We need to think more like gardeners and less like miners, you know, when it comes to the health of our farms,” he said. 

The Friends, who is comprised of volunteers that include scientists, have adopted a four step approach to execute the vision.

One, tracking key watershed threats or problems such as the low calcium levels. Two, identify and implement a plan where needed in terms of gaps of work, specifically with how the government is not acting on the “legacy issue” of acid rain. Three, a belief that public can help solve the problem.  

He said the Friends are about two and half years into the effort, which has included tracking, identifying, fundraising, and are just about to implement action based on the will of the public. 

Yan said his presentation was as much about informing as it was to motivate the audience to join the cause he has been part of the past two years. He said this has led him to recognize the importance of environmental psychology and how it plays a role in how people view issues such as climate change and then are driven to help. 

CHA chairperson Paul MacInnes said every year he attends a three-day scientific conference where there are numerous presentations regarding the health of lakes. He said at the end of those presentations he asks the scientists about how they intend to solve the presented problem.

“And most of them look like to me like a deer caught in headlights like they have no idea. That’s not something they do. Norm is a guy that sees a problem and says, let’s go out and solve it. And that’s what he’s done,” he said. “I mean if you think about the implications of this wood ash project, they’re enormous potential climate change, reduce flooding, healthier trees.”

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