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Helpers: Catching up with lake defender Richard Witham

Retired science teacher spends much of his free time on a mission to protect the city’s urban lakes from the impact of urbanization
Richard Witham, who has lived on Long Lake for 33 years, is one of the citizens who dedicates a good deal of time on a mission to protect urban lakes.

A battalion of volunteers keep an eye on the health of Sudbury's troubled waters.

Richard Witham, who has lived on Long Lake for 33 years with his wife, Audrey, is one of the citizens who dedicates a good deal of his free time on a mission to protect city lakes from the effects of urbanization.

He is a member of the Long Lake Stewardship Committee and is the immediate past-president of the Greater Sudbury Watershed Alliance (GSWA).

Like other residents who live along Long Lake, the Withams get their drinking water, which requires filtering and purification by intense ultraviolet light or other methods, from the lake. It is important to them to keep the lake healthy.

Stewardship members' concerns also extend to wider environmental issues that adversely affect wildlife and can restrict recreational use.

"When you live on the lake, and you are in the water, that raises your understanding (of the issues) and you get involved," Witham said.

Many of the city’s urban lakes have high sodium levels caused by the use of road salt in winter. They are also sensitive to residential pollutants such as septic system runoff, household products and lawn fertilizers that cause algae blooms. In addition, invasive lake plant species such as Eurasian Milfoil affect oxygen levels.

John Lindsay, another local water watchdog, appreciates Witham's dedication and leadership.

"Since the beginning, in my opinion, no one has been more involved in the GSWA than Richard Witham as a member of the executive committee."

Witham, a retired science teacher and midwifery professor, "is active in research concerning water quality issues that are relevant to our local situation, particularly increasing salt levels in our urban lakes, invasive species as well as septic system contamination," adds Lindsay, the president of the Minnow Lake Restoration Group.

"Richard is the assistant to the current GSWA chair, as well as serving on several committees requiring a great deal of time, especially the communication committee overseeing correspondence involving advocacy with various government bodies and the media."

Creating awareness surrounding lake water quality is one of the GSWA's prime objectives. Witham was involved in organizing the Troubled Waters conference in 2021. 

Five leading water quality experts, such as Living with Lakes Centre director John Gunn, were scheduled to present at a live event that had to be reconfigured as a virtual conference.

"If they had been speaking for the one night, the presentations would have been crammed in. (Instead) each (online) presenter had a two-hour slot," said Witham. 

And as it turned out, the Zoom sessions, which were spread out over five weeks, attracted a larger audience than a live event could have. The presentations were also recorded and released on YouTube.

A good deal of GSWA's work these days is corresponding with the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) questioning changes to regulations that favour property developers over environmental concerns.

Alex Cieslewicz is the current chair of GSWA and directors are Nicolas Smit (vice -chair), Susan Darling (secretary), David Young (treasurer), Elaine Porter, Margaret McLaughlin,  John Lindsay, Norm Eady, Lin Gibson, Craig Hamilton, Mandy Hey, Miranda Virtanen and Witham.

Two representatives from each of the 22 lake stewardship committees sit on the alliance.

"We meet from September to May, sometimes there is a meeting in June," said Witham.

The meetings were held at the Living with Lakes Centre and were open to the public before COVID-19. For now, in this "recovery period," GWSA is still meeting via virtually but their efforts of their good work flow all around us.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. Helpers is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.


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