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Millions of liters of wastewater could be dumped annually into the reputed healing waters of Little Manitou Lake when a new water treatment facility at the resort village of Manitou Beach goes into operation by the end of October.
"If that happens we really could have the dead sea here," said resident Michael Gaudet, referring to the reputation of the salty, buoyant water having healing powers like Jordan's famed Dead Sea.
The lake has helped sufferers of arthritis, rheumatism and skin conditions, according to a Web site dedicated to its history (watrous-sask.com/history2.htm).
Mineral salts from the water, 100 kilometers southeast of Saskatoon, are harvested and sold to drugstores.
The plan by the village is to provide safe, healthy, year-round water to residents by purifying well water through reverse-osmosis (RO). But according to research by the Manitou Beach Shoreline Restoration Association Inc. (MBSRAI), a registered non-profit group for which Gaudet is president, up to 10 gallons of source water is needed to make one gallon of RO water, depending on the amount of impurities in the raw supply.
"We're hearing that 30 gallons per minute will be discharged into the lake 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That works out to approximately 20 million gallons a year," said Gaudet.
"What happens if, over time, the mineral quality of the lake is altered or compromised and we have to drop the word 'resort' from our name?"
While he is vehemently opposed to filling the lake with well-water residue, Gaudet supports the intent of the $2.5-million project, calling it "a grand idea that will be good for the plumbing, both in the system and in your body."
But until a proper study on the impact of the lake can be performed, Gaudet and the MBSRAI believe the plan should be halted, comparing it to "a ticking time bomb." There has already been excavation work done for the foundation of the treatment facility and crews are working on installing water lines to each property.
"If you start to do something like that there's no way to clean it up. Once it's done, it's done, you can't get all of those chemicals back out of the water," said MBSRAI board member Rob Bennett.
Manitou Lake is a closed-basin system, meaning whatever goes in, stays there. More than just minerals, the wastewater could also contain farm chemicals that get into the water table, said Gaudet.
"We may find out in 15 years that there's absolutely no effect. But what if there is? Why can't we have some kind of feasibility study in place before it's too late?"
Livelihoods could also be at risk. Aside from the tourism industry, which thrives on the attraction of about 180,000 visitors each year, there is also a flourishing shrimp industry.
Manitou's high salt content doesn't support fish but has a large population of brine shrimp, more familiar to some people as sea monkeys, that odd creature advertised in comic books.
Bennett owns a shrimp-processing factory in Watrous and harvests tens of thousands of pounds each year from the lake and exports them around the world.
Gaudet said his group plans to put up posters about the water project in anticipation of large crowds during the long weekend at the resort.
A petition will also be circulated, asking for an environmental impact study. Gaudet has also asked council to hold a public meeting to discuss the management of the wastewater.
The idea was dismissed because there is little to talk about at this point, said administrator Jean Jack.
"We don't have an approval for anything yet," she said, noting discussions would be conjectural.
Other options being considered include sending the outflow into the lagoon via existing sewer pipes or putting it in an evaporation pool.
Bennett claims he has been told the lagoon and sewer system cannot handle an extra 30 gallons per minute and Gaudet suggests dumping it in a gravel pit, of which there are several.
Any suggestions the village is being careless about its unique asset is wrong, said Jack.
"We certainly don't want to destroy the properties of the lake. We have to have approval from (provincial) environment and water departments before we can do that. If we get that you can be sure they have thoroughly considered everything," she said. "Environment Canada and the province have both studied it. They must have."
Who will actually be in charge of making that decision seems to have been lost in the bureaucracy involved in the project.
"We're not doing any study," said Gary Papic, regional projects manager for the provincial Environment Department.
He said a consultant was hired by the village council "but I'm not sure if he's doing any of the work for them or what."
It is up to the village administration to collect data to be submitted to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Regina. But Papic is not sure what information the department requested.
"We're just waiting for that information now," he said.