The Language of the Lake

The News Guard

Terminology took center stage at a recent meeting of the Devils Lake Water Improvement district (DLWID) board of directors, as members grappled with the question of how to describe the various threats to water quality.

At their Feb. 2 meeting, board members wrestled with a decision about how to word signs warning of cyanobacteria blooms and went on to discuss whether the nutrients that contribute to those blooms should be described as “pollution.”

In a split vote, the board decided to stick with a modified version of the signage the District currently uses to warn of cyanobacteria blooms rather than switching to a uniform system of signage developed by the state.

Both options give less prominence to the word “cyanobacteria” than the District’s current signs, preferring the terms “Harmful Algal Blooms” and “Blue-green algae,” – a widely used but scientifically inaccurate term for the scummy substance that thrives in nutrient-rich water and can release toxins that affect the liver and brain.

Director Randy Weldon, who helped develop the District’s new signs, said the process was prompted by negative feedback from the public and concerns that the word “cyanobacteria” is “misunderstood or has a super-negative connotation.”

That negative connotation was evident in testimony from Lakefront property owner Larry Brown, who urged the Board to purge the word from all its literature.

Brown said he would have no idea what cyanobacteria were if not for his attendance at DLWID meetings.

“It would throw up in my mind something that’s deathly dangerous,” he said.

But Director Kip Ward disagreed with reducing the prominence of the word, saying the signs play the role of a “warning label.”

“When there is a bloom, our lake is, in a way, a dangerous product,” he said, “and dangerous products have consequences if people use them.”

“To monkey around with the verbiage to make something that’s scary less scary, I think is a disservice to the people that are using the lake,” he added.

Chair David Skirvin said that, while the District’s modified signs use different language, they do not give the impression that “everything’s great” in the lake.

Skirvin said the District signs are more specific to the Devils Lake watershed, something he felt would be lost with a switch to the state option.

Lake Manager Paul Robertson said using the state’s uniform signage could be helpful for visitors, who might be familiar with the signs from other waterways.

Director Brian Green said the best way to tackle misunderstanding is through education.

“I’m not concerned about the scariness or the lack of scariness of a particular piece of information,” he said. “Our job is to put it out there so people can make of it what they will.”

Director Noel Walker said the “Harmful Algal Blooms” header on the state’s information sign could put people off using the lake.

“You automatically assume there’s something harmful in the lake,” he said.

Walker said he would prefer the District continue with its traffic light system, with Robertson switching the signs from green to yellow or red depending on the lake conditions.

Walker, Skirvin and Weldon voted to use the District’s modified signs while gathering new signage from the state for a potential future switch.

Ward and Green opposed the move, with Green saying he saw no need for an immediate decision on which signs to use.

To download images of the new signs in PDF form, click on the links at the left of this page.

The ‘P’ word

The board also resolved to tighten its use of language when referring to the various forms of pollution in Devils Lake, after Ward raised a concern that vague terms are leading to miscommunication.

He said some people claim the lake is not polluted because it has only limited amounts of E-coli.

“But we have nitrogen and phosphorous” he said. “In your garden, that’s not pollution but in the lake, it is.”

Ward said the different interpretations of what constitutes “pollution” are leading to conflict between people who feel the lake is polluted and people who feel it is not.

“They are talking different things,” he said. “They are both right. Or they’re both wrong.”

Green suggested members discourage the use of the word “pollution,” and instead simply specify the substance to which they are referring.

“Everyone else can decide whether they think it’s bad or not,” he said.

Skirvin asked if Robertson could develop a list of the terms used to describe various lake contaminants so that board members and the public can be more specific.

Robertson said there are “a thousand’ different types of pollution, including – in the case of streams – temperature.

“And it’s an important element in pollution,’ he said. “I mean, it will kill salmon.”

Robertson said it is important to communicate that potential sources of nitrogen and phosphorous include septic systems and wildfowl attracted by feeding.

“That type of nutrient loading makes our blue-green algae issues worse and makes our weeds coming back more probable,” he said. “Those are the consequences.”

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Filed under DLWID, Water Quality

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