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Cultus Lake —  Addressing Cultural Eutrophication

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Juvenile salmon and trout species from the DFO Chilliwack River Hatchery swim about in a display at the 2019 Cultus Lake Pikeminnow Derby. – Christina Toth photo

About Cultus Lake

Set at the edge of the Cascade Mountain foothills just south of the central Fraser Valley, the Cultus Lake watershed is home to a diverse range of aquatic and land-based wildlife, including two fish species unique to its lake:

  • The Cultus Lake pygmy sculpin, a diminutive coast range sculpin subspecies that was stranded here after the last Ice Age, and is found only in Cultus
  • The Cultus Lake sockeye salmon: genetically unique, it is one of a few sockeye subspecies that spawn exclusively in the lake, which is also the rearing habitat for the juvenile salmon.

Long prized for its tranquil and natural beauty, Cultus Lake is in the ancestral land of the Ts’elqwxeyeq Tribe, which includes the Soowahlie First Nation, and who are part of the Stó:lō Nation. For millennia, their people have gathered on its shores to share stories, to live, to harvest and to fish. Their cultural imprint echoes in familiar names today – Chilliwack, Sumas, Cultus, Sweltzer, sockeye – and the lake remains a deeply important touchstone to Indigenous communities in the area.

The Ts'elxweyeqw perspective is this: S’ólh témexw te íkw’ eló. Xólhmet te mekw’stám ít kwelát – This is our land. We have to look after everything that belongs to us.

A quiet home for about 1,500 year-round residents, the lake community bustles in the summer as more than two million visitors arrive from around the Lower Mainland and beyond to enjoy recreational activities ranging from hiking, swimming, boating and fishing to camping, golf and waterslides.

The year-round home for about 1,500 residents, the lake community bustles in the summer as more than two million visitors arrive to enjoy recreational activities from hiking, swimming, boating and fishing to camping, golf and waterslides.

Cultus Lake, however, is undergoing a process that threatens its unique aquatic species and its natural assets and ecosystems: cultural eutrophication.


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Cultural Eutrophication

Cultural eutrophication occurs when excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus derived from human activity enter into an ecosystem. Nitrogen and phosphates build up in soils, escape into the air as dust and air pollution, and seep into streams and lakes. In the water, the nutrients accelerate plant growth and blue-green algae, which in turn disrupts the ecosystem balance by reducing food sources and dissolved oxygen needed by fish, and so making the aquatic habitat unliveable for many native species.

Eutrophication can disrupt the natural balance and rhythms of the lake, and that would make it difficult for juvenile salmon and other aquatic species to thrive and survive. For humans, the signs of change include fewer native fish species, more invasive species, cloudy water and in later years, toxic blue-algae blooms.

Currently, the lake’s two endemic fish are already deemed to be at risk:

  • The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) classified the Cultus Lake pygmy sculpin as endangered in 2000; the Species at Risk Act registry designates the sculpin as threatened in 2019;
  • Since 2002, COSEWIC has designated the Cultus sockeye as endangered.


A Bellwether Lake in the Fraser Valley

Researchers at the Cultus Lake Salmon Research Laboratory (DFO Lakes Research Program) have monitored the eutrophication process in Cultus Lake over the past decade. Cultus is a bellwether lake, suggesting that similar cultural eutrophication changes could be expected in other peri-urban freshwater lakes in the Fraser Valley watershed.

In 2014, Fraser Basin Council obtained funding from the Fraser Salmon & Watersheds Program and Canadian Wildlife Federation – Endangered Species Fund to enable a study on nutrient volumes in Cultus Lake and their sources. See:

These findings were further updated with the DFO Lakes Research Program researchers in 2019. See:

The studies identify the main sources of nitrogen and phosphorus to be:

  • Airborne deposits of nitrogen compounds and dust from the Fraser Valley region
  • Ground run-off from Columbia Valley farms and the surrounding watershed
  • Treated septic effluent from the immediate Cultus Lake community
  • Guano from thousands of gulls roosting in the lake over winter months.

In 2020, in partnership with the Fraser Valley Watershed Coalition, with the DFO Lakes Research Program, and with funds from the Canada Nature Fund – Aquatic Species at Risk, Fraser Basin Council produced a suite of papers about cultural eutrophication intended to raise awareness with the public and community leaders:

Eutrophication Can Be Reversed with the Right Action

Left unchecked, eutrophication will lead to significant ecosystem degradation. The effects of a changing climate and invasive species in the lake make the need for action even more urgent. The negative impacts could bring far-ranging environmental, cultural, social, and economic losses for Cultus Lake and other Fraser Valley communities.

The good news is that people can reverse eutrophication in Cultus Lake by reducing the levels of nutrients entering the lake.

For example, informed by the eutrophication studies, the Fraser Valley Regional District began plans in 2018 to build a Class A-plus septic wastewater system for Cultus Lake communities with the intention to extract most of nitrogen and phosphorus from the treated effluent before it is released into the ground. The new septic treatment system will go a long way to reduce nutrient volumes entering the lake, and will be a model for other communities facing similar challenges.

Fraser Basin Council continues to work with Cultus Lake stewardship groups and community partners to lead the way in finding sustainable solutions to reduce nutrient input from the various sources, in order to protect this critical freshwater resource and the lake’s exceptional inhabitants.

Contact

For information please contact Christina Toth, Assistant Regional Manager, Fraser Valley, at  .

 

Our Vision

Social well-being supported by a vibrant economy and sustained by a healthy environment.

About the Fraser Basin Council

The Fraser Basin Council (FBC) is a charitable non-profit organization that brings people together to advance sustainability in the Fraser River Basin and throughout BC. Established in 1997, FBC is a collaboration of four orders of government (federal, provincial, local and First Nations) along with those from the private sector and civil society. We work with people in multiple sectors, helping them find collaborative solutions to today’s issues through a commitment to the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability. Our focus is on healthy water and watersheds, action on climate change and air quality and strong, resilient communities and regions.

FBC Project and
Partner Sites

Plug in BC:
www.pluginbc.ca

Emotive:
www.emotivebc.ca

ReTooling for Climate Change:
www.retooling.ca

FBC Youth:
fbcyouthprogram.ca

Climate Action Toolkit:
www.toolkit.bc.ca 

Salmon-Safe BC
www.salmonsafe.ca

Contact Us

FBC has offices in Vancouver, Kamloops, Williams Lake, Quesnel and Prince George. We also have staff located in Abbotsford and Vernon.

To reach us, see FBC Offices and FBC Staff.

Our main office is:

Fraser Basin Council
1st Floor, 470 Granville Street
Vancouver, BC V6C 1V5

T: 604 488-5350
F: 604 488-5351
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