As the "human footprint" of development, urban sprawl and massive farming continues unabated - while crucial wetlands keep disappearing - the impact on Alberta lakes and rivers is becoming increasingly devastating.
That message from Dr. Michael Sullivan, a respected biologist, who told a captive audience in Fort Assiniboine Nov. 10 how fish populations and numerous lakes and rivers in Alberta are being ravaged and destroyed by decades of neglect and abuse.
Without a concerted community effort to restore wetland areas, policies to ensure development won't directly impact watercourses and farmers are given financial incentives to get involved in watercourse management practices, the problem is only going to get worse, said Sullivan.
"I'm a biologist and I'm not an economist and these are just my ideas," he said. "But I do believe they do give some possible solutions for the future because what we're doing now certainly isn't working."
Speaking to 60 members of the Fort Assiniboine Area Multi-Stakeholder Alliance (FAAMA), Sullivan said it's going to take a collective community effort to restore the damage caused by humans to watercourses and fish populations over the past century.
"The more and more human footprint ... it gets worse and worse and worse," said Sullivan about water quality and fish studies he has been involved with the past several years. "When you get more and more development, fish health gets worse and worse."
Sullivan's passion for wildlife has led him through three academic degrees at the University of Alberta and 25 years of fisheries, wildlife, and land use management with the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division.
For much of this career, Dr. Sullivan's work has been focused on resolving fisheries and aquatic issues in the Lakeland and Athabasca areas of northeastern Alberta. His successful work on restoring northern Alberta's walleye fisheries through the interaction of scientific models and public involvement has resulted in awards and recognition at local and international levels.
Sullivan made a presentation relating to his years of research he called "The Last Goldeye", where he and other biologists worked with members of the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance to study why goldeye and other fish species had disappeared.
There used to be massive amounts of walleye and goldeye in the North Saskatchewan dating back to the turn of the 20th century, said Sullivan.
Since the late 1970s, however, goldeye populations have been rapidly dwindling and those fish that were living in the river were disfigured and abnormal.
So he expanded his studies to the Battle River and spent three summers - from 2005 to 2008 - fishing and doing studies.
Over three summers, he and fellow ministry staff caught only seven goldeye.
"We new something really bad was happening," he said. "It wasn't very good."
Open sewer pipes were draining into the river and various forms of algae were clearly evident.
More studies at other Alberta lakes confirmed the greater the human imprint, the greater the damage to water and fish, he said.
At a lake near Bonnyville, thousands of fish were dying with tumours, fungal and bacterial parasites, resulting in missing body parts and deformed fins, he said.
"These fish had no more immune systems," he said. "We (biologists) thought this was a result of years of unplanned growth."
Further studies of the same area discovered huge vegetation areas surrounding the lake had disappeared.
It was also discovered huge amounts of livestock grazed near the river, resulting in huge amounts of manure and fertilizer entering the water course, he said.
Repeating numerous times the importance of agriculture to Alberta's economy and his affinity for the agriculture industry, Sullivan said the reality is there are thousands fewer farms in this province than there was 60 years ago, but those that do exist are often huge operations.
"We have more cows and fewer people," he said.
Over the last 40 years, crop yields in Alberta have grown eight times with fewer people, he said. Crop production is the leading manufacturer of phosphorous in the province and much of it ends up in lakes and rivers.
Products on the market are great for increasing crop yields, but the damage being done to watercourses can't be ignored, he said.
"This is intense stuff," he said. "I don't mean to slam agriculture because I grew up on a farm ... but it's a real problem."
It's his opinion senior levels of government should start paying farmers across the country to get involved in programs that would protect watercourses, Sullivan said.
"I think we should pay farmers for clean air and land and water," he said. "If we want them to keep our shorelines clean, we should pay them."
The average Alberta farmer's household income is $10,000 less than the average Albertan and most farmers won't get involved in water protection strategies unless they are paid for their involvement, he said.
Farmers are generally environmentally-friendly citizens who would gladly get involved to ensure nearby watercourses aren't affected by their operations, he said.
Development of roads, subdivisions, towns and cities has negatively affected wetlands across this province for decades, he said.
"Wetlands are the filters for our lakes and rivers," he said. "Wetland loss affects us all. We're seeing more nutrients and algae enter our lakes as forests and wetlands disappear. This has caused great problems. When we lose wetlands, it's not a cool thing."
A perfect example of how the human imprint makes such an impact on watercourses and fish populations can be seen by the drinking water enjoyed by Edmontonians, Sullivan said.
Edmonton's drinking water comes from a section of the Saskatchewan River fed by mountain runoff from Alberta's Foothills, he said.
Fish species are abundant and thriving and the drinking water is superb, he said.
But an adjacent creek he studied was dying because it has so much phosphate in it, he said.
'That was really a smoking gun," he said. "The only fish who survived were suckers and minnows ... everything else died."
The creek and river were only metres apart.
The fact the Alberta government is actively endorsing, promoting and listening to Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs) is very encouraging, said Sullivan.
For decades, bureaucrats without proper expertise were calling al the shots and instituting policy, which has led to so many watershed management problems, he said.
The fact the government is not only listening to community organizations, but also is willing to spend huge amounts of money to try and find long-term solutions is good news, he said.
All of the problems caused to water quality across Alberta are not irreversible, he said.
"Just because a river has gone green and stagnant doesn't mean you can't get it back," he said.
"This is a community problem and it needs community solutions. The message has to be how do we regain what we've lost due to development."