Steenburg Lake Community Association

Thinking Green

From the Lake Steward, Rick Burke


Fix the leaky cottage throne: A toilet tank leaking into the bowl adds a lot of water to the septic system. To test for leaks put a few drops of food colouring into the tank. If the colouring appears in the bowl without being flushed, you have a leak.  

Flush less A toilet dam or displacement device in the tank reduces the amount of water being flushed. The toilet dam is a simple tool that holds back water from the flapper valve. Displacement devices can be DIY – set a full plastic water bottle in the tank (don’t use a brick; it can disintegrate, ruining the valves).  

Install a low- or dual-flush toilet A low-flush toilet use six litres per flush, compared with the 18 to 24 litres typical of old-style models. Dual-flush toilets give you an option of three-litre or six-litre flushes with two buttons (the manufacturers leave it up to you to label them number one and number two). 

Install a low-flow showerhead , especially if long-showering teenagers hang out at your cottage. A low-flow aerator can cut the water flow by 50 per cent without lessening the spray. 

Practice catch-and-release-elsewhere at the sink When rinsing fruits and veggies, put a basin below the faucet and recycle the captured water for thirsty plants or sluicing off the deck chairs. Brushing your teeth for two minutes with the tap running loses about 11 litres of water down the drain; a mug of water for brushing and rinsing does the job with much less waste.


Sniff out a sick septic system There are still cottagers out there with leaking and overloaded septic systems, a major source of contaminated runoff to the lake. Human waste contains phosphorus, a nutrient that algae thrive on; too much of it, and your lake will get algal blooms and decline in water quality. Inspect your septic bed and surrounding area periodically for odours or puddling and, if you detect trouble, call in the professionals. And get the tank pumped out every three to five years. If you’re having a huge crowd to the cottage, say for a wedding, rent a porta-potty instead of stressing the septic system.

Kick the lawn habit About 50 per cent of rainfall rolls right over short manicured grass to the water, carrying with it fertilizers (many are loaded with phosphorus) or pesticides (poisonous to aquatic life). Better to replace a lawn with no-maintenance native plants, such as dogwood and black-eyed Susans, which readily absorb most surface water. If you must be a turfhead, keep the grass more than 30 metres from the shoreline, don’t use fertilizers or pesticides, and mow it no shorter than eight centimetres high.

Refuel away from the water When you need to top up gas tanks, such as chainsaws, generators, pumps, and boat engines, do it well back from shore, preferably over a tray and in a shelter with a hard floor. Use a rag for mopping, to make cleanup easy.  

Hook a rainbarrel up to your eavestroughs By catching rainfall before it hits the ground, you can greatly reduce runoff. (For those who only associate runoff with summer rainfall, it also comes in winter and spring, in the form of snowmelt.) Even temporarily storing rain in a barrel until after a storm lets up helps reduce erosion. Newer rainbarrels are designed to keep out mossies so the water won’t become a breeding pool for them.  

Replace hard, paved surfaces with more porous ones Instead of asphalt or concrete surfaces for paths and drives, use wood chips, small pebbles, permeable paving stone, or anything else that allows runoff to soak into the soil. You can also plant a small rain garden, a planted depression designed to catch overflow water around paved areas.

Stock up on greener cleaners What goes down the drain and into the septic can still make its way to the lake. Many detergents and soaps on the market contain phosphates, so watch what you buy. As well, avoid using household chemical cleaners, which destroy the beneficial bacteria that break down the waste in the holding tank. There are much less harmful alternatives now, with the proliferation of products with green certifications, such as the federal government’s EcoLogo (see Green Resources link) and the comeback of DIY cleaners, like baking soda, vinegar, and lemon juice (for recipes, visit 

Don’t soap in the lake, ever Even if a soap says it’s phosphate-free and biodegradable, don’t assume it’s safe for the lake. The soap can be harmful to fish and other aquatic animals; all “biodegradable” means is that it’s capable of breaking down (with the help of soil bacteria) into its constituent parts. However, do use this type of soap if bathing on land, and dump the washwater well back from the lake, so it doesn’t filter down as runoff.

Pick up after your pooch Yes, there’s already wildlife poop around the cottage, but modern CSI-style tracking of pollutants has identified dog-doo as a major source of water pollution in many areas, one that carries coliform bacteria that can make people sick. Bury or toss it in the back forty, or flush it down. 


Retire that old beer fridge It’s been great for your overflow beer stash, but that ancient fridge in the boathouse is sucking more than four times the electricity of a newer, energy-efficient model, and costing you almost $130 a year (or a few two-fours).  Be a greener beer drinker and retire the clunker. At the very least, unplug it between visits and definitely over winter. As for the kitchen fridge, another energy hog if it’s 10 or more years old, keep it out of the sun, away from the stove, and in an area that allows air to circulate to improve its efficiency. Also check the door seal: If it isn’t tight enough to hold a piece of paper in place when closed, repair or replace it

Beware the phantom load Some electrical devices that use a remote control, like televisions, DVD players, or stereos, or use an adaptor, such as computers, continue to steal power after they’re turned off. Unplug these or hook them into a power bar with a switch so you can really turn them off when not in use.  

Switch the cottage wattage Even the few table lamps and overhead lights that illuminate the corners of your cottage would cost a lot less to you and the environment if you switched from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs. They last up to 10 times longer and use about one-quarter the electricity. Turn off inside lights and other electrical equipment whenever you leave the cottage. 

Don’t be a night polluter Floodlights and other high-wattage outdoor bulbs are not ony energy eaters, they are inappropriate at the cottage. They cause light pollution on our lakes, messing up the mating and feeding behaviour of wildlife, reducing boaters’ ability to see navigation lights, and stealing our view of the stars. Replace them with low-wattage lamps; and turn them off unless you really need them

Hold the heat in hot water Wrap your hot water tank in an insulating jacket, available at most hardware stores. When you’re away for the week, turn down the setting from “hot” to “warm” or “low.” Or get rid of the tank entirely for an on-demand system, which heats water only when required. 

Put the kettle on Keep a kettle full of water on the woodstove. Even if you don’t use it, water has a high heat capacity and will continue to warm (and humidify) the room after the stove has gone out.

Listen to Charlotte When sealing up cracks in the cottage, keep an eye out for spider webs. Spiders like to weave them in the path of airflow (a.k.a. air leaks) to catch insects. 

Plant a tree or two Green giants are great insulators of the cottage. Plant deciduous trees on the south and west sides of the cottage, to provide shade in summer and let sun inside throughout the winter. Conifers on the north and northwest sides block cold winds in winter with their thick evergreen boughs.  

Hang curtains or blinds And keep them closed as much as is practical – they help hold cool or warm air inside (and they’re much better at preventing bird-window collisions than bird silhouettes). In the winter, curtains on south-facing windows should be opened during the day to let the sun in and closed at night to keep the heat in. Insulated curtains, such as window quilts, are an excellent way to increase your heat efficiency


Rebuild the buffer zone Many cottage waterfronts have been stripped of the native shrubs, trees, grasses, and other plants that usually grow along an undeveloped shoreline. And that’s a big loss because this buffer zone traps harmful runoff in its roots and decomposing leaves, helps to prevent erosion, and is a rich habitat for shore-dwelling species vital to a healthy aquatic ecosystem. One of the best things you can do for your lake is replant the buffer, with species native to your cottage area. Ideally, it should be as wide as your waterfront and as deep as 30 metres, but if that sounds too daunting, start small with a strip that’s a few metres deep and enlarge it over a few years. Even a passive approach – stopping the lawn-cutting and letting native plants regenerate – can work wonders. See Green Resources for more information.

Let sleeping logs lie Driftwood and fallen trees at the shoreline provide hiding places, feeding grounds, and spawning areas for lots of aquatic creatures, such as fish, frogs, and salamanders. They can also act as a breakwater to prevent erosion. So leave the “clutter” where it is. Or, if your waterfront is devoid of woody debris, install a log in the water yourself; be sure to anchor it so it doesn’t create a boating hazard and check with your local Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to see if permits are required. 

Get over that waterweed phobia Okay, so the kids squeal when they step in the shallows and feel weedy tentacles. Don’t strip the entire waterfront of its aquatic vegetation, which holds sediment in place and provides critical food and shelter for many water dwellers, from bass to water striders. Instead, designate a small activity area for swimming, preferably less than two metres wide, and contact your local MNR for a work permit before you remove any amount of aquatic vegetation. Easier still, put a ladder at the end of your dock and skip the shallows entirely. 

Opt for a low-impact dock If you’re ready for a new dock, choose a floating, pipe, or a cantilever dock, which cause much less disturbance to lakebed habitat and life than the traditional crib dock. Ideally, choose a design that minimizes modifications to the shoreline. See Green Resources for more information.


Unload your cap collection You know those beer caps you’ve been saving for decades? Well, you can recycle them at the same place as the bottles: The Beer Store.  

Reduce your hoard of old runners Nike will take any brand of used running shoes and grind them up into Nike Grind, a material used for sports tracks. Mail them to Nike Recycling Center, c/o Reuse-A-Shoe   26755 SW 95th Ave., Wilsonville, OR 97070.

Make your leftover paint last longer Tip cans of unused paint upside down (make sure the lids are on tight) and it will keep for years; the paint creates an inner seal around the lids, so air can’t seep in and dry it up. When you’ve finally used up your latex paint, don’t toss the cans; just leave their lids off, let the paint dry completely, and use them as storage containers in your shed. 

Bear-free composting If you’re at your cottage at least every other weekend, you can compost your food scraps indoors, using worms. They create beautiful compost in special “vermicomposting” containers that emit little or no smell, so they aren’t a wildlife attractant. However, the hardworking worms need to be fed a minimum of once every two weeks.  


Be a slow and low-polluting boater When close to shore, always drive at a “no wake” speed (10 km/h within 30 metres of shore) to protect aquatic and shoreline nurseries from wave and prop action, and prevent erosion. Get your engine tested to ensure it meets or exceeds EPA 2007 standards. If you’re in the market for a new engine, four-strokes and direct-injection two-strokes are much cleaner than old-style two-strokes.

Post nesting- and spawning-area signs on your waterfront Give a heads-up to boaters, especially visiting ones, about the critical habitats of birds and fish on your lake. 

Get the lead out of the tackle box Too often lead tackle ends up in the gullets of aquatic feeders such as loons; in fact, 25 per cent of loon deaths are caused by lead poisoning. Switch to non-lead sinkers and jigs and protect our cottage-country icon. 

Keep the aliens away: Exotic species such as zebra mussels and dragonfish can wreak havoc when they arrive in a new lake environment, often hitchhiking on boat hulls and in live wells and bait buckets. Before you launch in a new lake, drain the bilge water and bait buckets and scrub the hull bottom to avoid transferring these alien species. If you use live bait, always use local species and never dump unused bait into the water.

Leave standing dead trees Not just for woodpeckers, these “snags” are a veritable hotel for a host of other birds, mammals, and insects. Let them stand, unless they pose a safety hazard; if felled, leave them on the ground to decay, providing another source of food and habitat for creatures such as salamanders and chipmunks. 

Create a wildlife corridor Many animals and birds won’t cross open areas, needing a corridor of dense vegetation to get from the top of your lot to the water’s edge. Chart a course through the low-traffic areas of your property and fill in gaps with native shrubs, such as dogwood, grasses such as big bluestem or Canada wild rye, and flowers such as butterfly weed or blazing star, which will attract lots of birds and butterflies. 

By Steve Stockton, Cottage Life Magazine