SUMMERTIME... AND TOXIC ALGAE IS BLOOMING
By Suzanne Forcese
Lake Winnipeg’s Victoria Beach, July 2019
Phosphorus coming from diverse sources in a watershed is the nutrient responsible for blue green algal blooms. Residents of Victoria Beach, Manitoba, are anxious to bring Lake Winnipeg back to health.
Dr. Scott Higgins, Research Scientist at the International Institute For Sustainable Development (IISD) and previous contributor to WaterToday spoke at length with WT on algal blooms.
“The drivers of phosphorus into Lake Winnipeg come primarily from the Red River and the Red River Basin. Algal blooms are 4 times higher than they were in the 1980’s. The main contributors making the system more sensitive are the City of Winnipeg’s wastewater plant, agriculture, and climate change.”
WaterToday also spoke with Alexis Kanu, PhD. (Environmental Science), Executive Director of The Lake Winnipeg Foundation (LWF), who told us, “We are hearing from people around the lake telling us that the blooms are starting earlier, lasting longer, and are worse than ever.”
The Reeve of Victoria Beach, Penny McMorris , told WT, “The algae has a negative impact on our water treatment system clogging our filters resulting in less raw water coming into the system decreasing the reservoir level.”
When the reservoirs are too low water treatment is ineffective. A Boil Water Advisory or a Do Not Consume Advisory could be issued by the Province.
The timing could not be worse. McMorris adds, “We are in our busiest two weeks of the summer season and coming up to the busiest weekend of the summer.” The Rural Municipality is encouraging residents to continuously practice water conservation.”
Kanu says, “We are so far beyond best water conservation practices. This is more than an environmental issue. It is an investment in our future. Folks are coming together for larger policy changes going beyond individual actions.”
One change that has the potential to significantly reduce phosphorus overload by 70% would be a cost effective interim solution to Winnipeg’s wastewater treatment system recommended by LWF and IISD.
Dr. Higgins says, “the method we are recommending is globally successful and reasonably priced. There is no reason to hesitate.”
LWF’s Kanu told WT that a request from the Province was made to the City of Winnipeg to provide a timeline for plant upgrades and to outline the interim measures with a deadline of July 31, 2019.
On July 31, 2019 (the deadline) Water Today received the following statement via email from a provincial spokesperson from the Premier’s Office:
The City of Winnipeg submitted a Notice of Alteration for the North End Water Pollution Control Centre to the province on July 30, 2019. We have received the report and will be reviewing and assessing it. The notice is publicly available at
https://www.gov.mb.ca/sd/eal/registries/1071.1/2019_01_23_request.for.NofA_file1071.10.pdf; materials regarding the City of Winnipeg – North End Water Pollution Control Centre will become available when ready on the public registry.
In the meantime, one of the Projects LWF has been working diligently on is the collection of data at phosphorus hotspots. A collaboration of conservationists and citizen scientists measure phosphorus concentrations across Manitoba. The findings highlight the potential to replicate dry conditions and correspondingly low phosphorus exports by holding water on the land in constructed ponds and dams.
Dr. Higgins adds that for the last century the drainage of natural wetlands produced more agricultural land. We need “to provide incentives to farmers to retain our wetlands.” Climate change is also making its impact “with wetter springs and flooding creating greater runoff that carries concentrations of fertilizer.”
“We need the phosphorus to sediment out.”
LWF adds that the limited resources must be strategically invested in the hotspots, otherwise we may be wasting time, money and effort. Nutrient-rich water stored on working farms can be recycled for irrigation and livestock watering. Practical benefits to land owners can reduce the phosphorus load to Lake Winnipeg. Ongoing wetland drainage will decrease the natural water-storage capacity and the cost of water quality protection will increase.
Efforts are being made. For example, The Red River Basin Commission is working on a pilot project to build islands in the Netley Marsh to help filter out the phosphorus before it can enter the lake.
“It’s a small but significant step toward a bigger solution,” Reeve McMorris says. Action requires a significant financial commitment from all levels of government to make a difference.”
James Bezan, Member of Parliament for Selkirk – Interlake – Eastman (Manitoba) also spoke at length with WaterToday sharing the same sentiments. “We need environmental plan-making investments in our wastewater. We have to work together across disciplines, the private sector, entrepreneurs and organizations. The main driver of our aquifer is Lake Winnipeg. We need to protect our resource.”
Kanu concludes. “A number of solutions are required in the city and rural areas We have the knowledge to act – tried and true wastewater systems, monitoring data, water retention measures, best practices for agriculture – we know all this. More research sprinkled across the vast watershed will just spin our wheels.” Kanu emphasizes that she feels a momentum shift. “We are not willing to wait.”
Summed up in the statement from the Premier’s Office, the spokesperson writes:
Actions specific to improving water quality in Lake Winnipeg are challenging given the many small nutrient sources across the one million square kilometer watershed. Virtually all of our activities across the Lake Winnipeg Basin, including point sources such as municipal wastewater and industrial discharges and non-point sources such as excess runoff from agriculture, golf courses, and urban and cottage areas, contribute nutrients to Lake Winnipeg. Approximately 50 percent of the nutrients in Lake Winnipeg originate from outside Manitoba, requiring collaboration with neighbors in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, North Dakota, and Minnesota. Nutrient reductions across the Lake Winnipeg watershed benefit not only Lake Winnipeg but lakes and rivers across the watershed.
Actions underway to reduce nutrient loading include improving wastewater treatment to reduce nutrients, reducing excess runoff of nutrient from land through regulation and also by implementing the 4 Rs of nutrient management to ensure that the right amount of fertilizer is applied at the right time, right place and from right source.
The Province continues to make significant investments in water and wastewater infrastructure.
Manitobans are reminded to avoid swimming in water where sever algal blooms are visible and to prevent pets from drinking water along the shoreline where algal blooms are present.
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