Did you know that Lake Winnipeg was named “Threatened Lake of the Year” in 2013 by Global Nature Fund? This should concern everyone and not only those living adjacent to the lake itself. Lake Winnipeg is the 10th largest freshwater body on earth, and it’s also the 2nd largest watershed in Canada; a watershed area that encompasses much of the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, northwestern Ontario, many First Nations and four US states. The lake also generates tens of millions of dollars of economic activity through commercial fishing, sport fishing, tourism and recreation.
Lake Winnipeg was singled out in 2013 because of the increasing size and frequency of harmful algae blooms as a result of a process known as eutrophication. The increase in size and frequency of algae blooms is happening around the world and left unchecked can lead to negative environmental effects including aquatic hypoxia.
media! News Magazine spoke with Marlo Campbell of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation (LWF) regarding the current situation of the lake and the foundation’s efforts to raise awareness and preserve it. Founded in 2005, the Lake Winnipeg Foundation is an environmental non-governmental organization with a focus on research, public education, stewardship and collaboration. These actions include leading the Lake Winnipeg Health Plan, and with other organizations and groups, seek to educate citizens, push for science-based policy, and encourage innovation and excellence in water stewardship. (More about LWF)
1 – Eutrophication – what’s causing it (for Lake Winnipeg) and what can be done to stop/slow it? How threatened is the lake?
Eutrophication is a condition caused by an over-abundance of nutrients such as phosphorus. Phosphorus isn’t a bad thing – all living things need it – but too much of it contributes to the growth of algae. Again, algae isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but some types of algae (such as cyanobacteria, more commonly known as blue-green algae) may be toxic to humans and animals.
Algae need phosphorus, nitrogen and sunlight to grow. We can’t control the sun, and some types of cyanobacteria can actually pull nitrogen from the surrounding atmosphere. For this reason, LWF focuses our efforts on phosphorus reduction, as this is the only nutrient we humans have the ability to control, in terms of how much of it enters the lake and acts as food for algae.
Phosphorus reduction is how we can slow eutrophication. Phosphorus comes from many sources – cleaning products and sewage among them. It is made worse by such things as flooding (itself, a result of climate change) – when high volumes of water carrying nutrients rushes across the landscape, the earth’s natural nutrient filtering systems (like, for example, wetlands) can’t keep up.
A unique challenge for Lake Winnipeg is its huge watershed – the area that drains into it. Our watershed is almost one million square kilometres and stretches across four provinces, four US states and multiple First Nations. This means nutrient loading is coming from across a large area (flush a toilet in Calgary and that water will eventually end up in Lake Winnipeg.) It also means solutions must be multi-jurisdictional.
LWF is developing an eight-point Lake Winnipeg Health Plan that identifies actions to reduce phosphorus loading to Lake Winnipeg as a result of activities happening throughout Manitoba and beyond. You can read more about our health plan and its eight key actions here.
How threatened is Lake Winnipeg? It depends on who you ask, I suppose. The GNF designation was an opportunity to get a broader audience to pay attention to our lake – and of course, awareness is the first step towards meaningful action. LWF is concerned about eutrophication; certainly, algae blooms are getting larger and more frequent. Too much algae can disrupt the food web of a lake ecosystem. It can also have serious negative effects on the commercial fishing, recreation and tourism industries – which is a big deal here in Manitoba. These three industries collectively bring in more than $100 million annually, and our beaches are currently some of the best in North America, if not the world. Grand Beach, for just one example, attracts approximately 600,000 visitors a year. If Grand Beach was covered in green soup…?
2 – Are neighbouring lakes also seeing the same thing?
Yes – and not just neighboring lakes here in Manitoba. Nutrient pollution is affecting water bodies across the globe. Lake Erie is also suffering from eutrophication. “Red tides” are appearing in coastal regions of the US and Australia. Algae known as sea lettuce is clogging water bodies in China. While the causes of these algae blooms are not fully understood, the available scientific evidence points to nutrient pollution.
3 – What’s the effect on wildlife?
Algae acts as food for lake organisms. But too much algae can disrupt the food web. This is because, when algae die, they sink to the bottom of the lake and decompose, which uses up the oxygen that other organisms need. In effect, eutrophication can choke or suffocate a lake.
4 – Are the municipal, provincial and/or federal governments helping/hindering?
LWF believes in collaboration. We think we are stronger if we work together to find solutions.
In Manitoba, the provincial government has recently created the Lake Friendly Stewards Alliance, a group of 70+ stakeholders who have come together with a common goal of improving water quality by reducing nutrients to our waterways.
5 – What can Canadians do?
Educate themselves about the issue. Recognize that clean, fresh water is a precious – and finite – natural resource. Indeed, water is essential to life itself. Action 8 of our health plan is Taking Responsibility. At LWF, we encourage all Canadians to consider what it means to be stewards of our shared waters, consumers with purchasing power, and citizens living in a democracy in which the collective voice of the people influences the laws of the land.
6 – Anything you would like to add?
Anyone looking for more information can go to our website, www.lakewinnipegfoundation.org.