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Why are we doing Cumulative Effects assessments?

cumulative effects environment land use resilience systems water Jan 15, 2024

My mom is a school teacher.  And she was always finding ways to inspire me to enjoy learning.  I asked my parents for a microscope for my 11th Birthday present and they came through!  A Tasco Deluxe Microscope and it came in a black wooden case with brass hinges on the lid – suitable for taking it to the field.  The guide explained how to make slides using cover slips and I was looking at everything from my own blood cells to squashed mosquitoes. 

Mom told me that ponds were amazing ecosystems filled with life so small we couldn’t see it – unless we had a microscope.  One day mom and I got in her orange Volkswagen bug (the synchronicity is not lost on me) and headed out to find a suitable pond for samples.  Mom knew exactly where to go. 

We drove out towards 417 Squadron near CFB Cold Lake where all the CF-104’s were.  We’d driven down that road many times because 104’s are my favourite fighter jet and I always wanted to go see them.  We stopped short of the squadron hangars at a pond just off the road.  It seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere – just forest around us and the pond.

When I got out of the car it was loud.  The air was so loud with the sound of hundreds of frogs all singing.  It was springtime and the pond was flooding over its summer banks.  So I put on my big, black rubber boots and started down the ditch.  Mom didn’t bring her boots, so she stayed back at the car. 

Carefully and as quietly as possible I moved through the bushes and the tall grass not making a sound.  As I got to the spongy edge of the pond I knelt down with my jar to scoop a sample of water.  You have to go slow or you’ll stir up the bottom and won’t see anything.  In a smooth arc a scoop the jar down into the pond and back up.  Then stand up and hold the jar up to the sky for light.

“I got two tadpoles and a mosquito larva!” I yelled back to mom grinning proudly.

Sudden silence.  All the sound stopped instantly.  All the frogs stopped singing on queue as if the orchestra conductor had waved them off.  Spooky silence as I stood there with my sample.

Right around the time Jacob and Cassidy had taken my bug safety job we spent part of our summer vacation visiting my parents in Cold Lake.  My stories began coming more to life as I took them to all the places I experienced growing up.  I wanted to share that pond experience with the kids and they were pretty stoked for it.  Even though it was summer the frogs were still singing when we got out of the truck at the pond. 

“OK guys, you gotta be quiet right or the frogs will hear you and – wshht they’ll stop singing”.  I emphasized the effect with my best orchestra conductor wave off.

“ya dad, ya dad!!”

Off they went in their rubber boots moving through the bushes and grass in total stealth mode.  They didn’t make a sound and the frogs kept happily singing.  They got to the pond edge and reached in for their samples.  Cassidy burst out “Hey dad!” furiously pointing at her sample jar with a huge grin on her face.

Sudden silence.  All the sound stopped instantly.  The orchestra conductor had waved the frogs off.  Cassidy’s grin turned to a wide-eyed shock and her hand covered her mouth.  Jacob indignantly rolled his eyes and shook his head

When my grandkids come along, I want to be able to share that experience with them too.  But I’m not sure I will be able to. 

The pond is the headwaters of a very small watershed.  The pond is drained by a small creek that runs just 4km before it drains into the Beaver River.  And today that creek has to cross 4 roads, a railway, a pipeline, a 100-meter-wide electricity transmission line with all the trees cut right down to the ground, they might even be using herbicide.  In fact I looked on Google Earth and the creek now is never more than 200 meters from human footprint.  The city, the airport, and agriculture fields are all creeping closer and closer. 

If that trend continues, the cumulative effects of all of that, I can’t be certain the frogs will be there for my grandkids.  I can’t even be sure the pond will be there.

And isn’t that really why we are all working on cumulative effects?  It’s not just because it’s our job or we need a regulatory certificate.  Mom had it right.  We all know that we have a responsibility to take care of nature and the way it’s going, we’re not sure we are doing that.  We are not sure business as usual is sustainable.  We aren’t sure we are leaving enough for our grandkids.

Why cumulative effects? It demands that we have a systems view of life and that is a unifying vision for all of us.