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Ontario residents will tote more than boats, bug spray and beer to cottage country this holiday weekend -- many will also carry a growing concern with water quality and how it affects their health, fun and the value of their vacation property.

The tragedy of contaminated drinking water in Walkerton, Ont., has heightened concerns among cottagers not just about the water they chug to slake their thirst but also water for boating, swimming, fishing and admiring from dockside.

That worry has energized a huge volunteer effort from Ontario cottagers to do what the Ministry of Environment isn't doing: regularly test and monitor the quality of their lake water. "Water quality is the No. 1 concern of our cottagers," said Mary Muter, who is a cottage owner and environment-committee chairwoman for the Georgian Bay Association, an umbrella organization of 24 cottage associations representing 5,000 families.

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"If the water quality deteriorates, the whole reason for being here is lost."

And water clarity is increasingly believed to influence the value of waterfront property. A recent newsletter distributed to the province's lake stewards (those assigned by Ontario cottage associations to monitor water quality) cites a 1996 study of Maine lakes that found shoreline-property values plummet 10 to 15 per cent for every metre of clarity that a lake loses.

This weekend, Ms. Muter will be among 500 volunteers at nearly as many lakes all across Ontario's cottage country who will dip a device called a Secchi disc into the water to see how far it can be immersed and remain visible, then report the results to the Ministry of Environment.

The effort is overseen by the ministry's three-year-old Ontario Lake Partner Program, which is capitalizing on cottagers' concerns by enlisting them to monitor lake quality. The Federation of Ontario Cottagers' Associations, whose 500 member associations represent more than 83,000 property owners, is supplying the volunteers through whom the Lake Partner Program collects data from about 750 of the province's more than 200,000 inland lakes, according to Andy Gemza, a lake specialist with the Ministry of Environment who co-ordinates the program.

But clarity isn't the only issue furrowing the tanned brows of cottagers who want to maintain the value and beauty of their vacation properties.

Last year, the Georgian Bay Association hired a marine biologist and used volunteers to test water-bacteria levels.

By the end of last summer, fecal coliform and E. coli counts from bays with marinas and boat moorings on Georgian Bay had surpassed safe levels for swimming and exceeded the warning level for posing a risk to drinking-water.

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"Obviously, you are not going to go swimming, or paddleboating or windsurfing in these waters," Ms. Muter said. "There is concern about property values."

Large algae blooms (yellowish-green growth on the water's surface indicating poor water quality) showed up in popular Honey Harbour, near Penetanguishene, last summer, she said. Tests showed that the deep water there had been almost completely depleted of oxygen, an element necessary for fish and other aquatic life.

On Monday, Ms. Muter will train 20 volunteers in Honey Harbour to closely monitor the water quality there this summer by deploying a variety of tests for bacteria, oxygen, clarity, phosphorous levels and even counting the number of bug-like invertebrates in the sediment, which signal changes in lake health.

She said she doesn't know why the water quality in Honey Harbour is so compromised, but in cottage country there is a long list of usual suspects, including black water (toilet waste dumped from live-aboard boats or portable toilets) and grey water (soapy or dirty water from boat sinks or showers).

Dumping of black water is illegal in Ontario lakes, but according to Ms. Muter there's no indication that anyone is enforcing the law.

"It's very frustrating for us," she said. "The Ministry of Environment is not enforcing black-water legislation. . . . We have reason to suspect it's being dumped. We get very high bacteria levels in areas which had previously been clean before live-aboard boat traffic."

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Still, even without the presence of boats, the cottagers themselves pose a variety of threats to lake-water quality. Improperly maintained cottage septic tanks are one of the biggest culprits, since they can overflow into lake water and contaminate it with phosphates and fecal bacteria.

As a result, cottager associations are putting pressure on their municipalities to do regular inspection of septic systems close to lakes.

The Township of Georgian Bay tests regularly, but not all municipalities have the resources do so.

"We will do whatever we can to put pressure on our municipality, but they are amalgamating with four others and we only know the players here," said Gerry Hunnius, a former professor of environmental studies at York University who has retired to his cottage on Lake Paudash near Bancroft, Ont., where he is head of the lake's conservation association.

IN COTTAGE COUNTRY

Taking a closer look at what affects a lake's quality and a simple test that will tell you about the condition of your water.

ASSAULTS ON THE LAKE

From cottagers: -Sewage runoff from poor septic tanks -Use of too many phosphates, which leach from septic tank to lake -Taking out shoreline vegetation, which filters water runoff into lake -Fertilizer and pesticides from lawns and gardens From boats: -Oil and gas from two-stroke engines -Grey water (dishwashing, shoers, soapy water) -Black water (toilet wastes) -Gas emissions that settle on lake's surface Results: -Algae blooms on lake, which make it impossible for swimming -Not enough oxygen, which kills fish life -Compromised drinking and recreational water

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THE SECCHI DISC

The disc is used to measure clarity, an indicator of water quality. Water clarity decreases as nutrients from the surrounding watershed enter the lake and promote the growth of algae. Readings are taken by lowering the disc into a lake and measuring the depth at which it disappears. If the disc disappears at five or more metres, the lake is considered unenriched and of a high quality. In an enriched, or aging lake, the disc would disappear within three metres or less.

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