Oh my! How bad can it get! Lake Winnipeg is in the running for Threatened Lake of the Year, 2013. Global Nature Fund, the organization that created the International Living Lakes network and annually chooses the most-threatened lake in the world, received the Lake Winnipeg nomination from its affiliate Living Lakes Canada.
The press release from the network termed the award, a “dubious distinction,” saying Lake Winnipeg could join other past winners such Lake Titicaca on the border between Peru and Bolivia and the Dead Sea, the shoreline of which is shared by Jordan and Israel.
The decision on whether to award Lake Winnipeg a plaque on the “wall of shame and infamy” — my term for the “dubious distinction” — will be decided on February 2, during World Wetland Day.
“As one of the largest lakes in the world, Lake Winnipeg is very well known, but not much is known internationally about the dramatic environmental problems of the lake and wetlands of the watershed,” said Udo Gattenlohner of the Global Nature Fund.
“Many people in Germany and throughout Europe believe problems hardly occur in Canada,” he added. “However, recent changes in Canada’s policies seem to be eroding the protection of particularly vulnerable water ecosystems — and it is disappointing because this does not really fit with the image of Canada.”
Lake Winnipeg is the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world with a watershed spanning nearly one-million-square kilometres that stretches from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Superior. The watershed drains agricultural fields, livestock farms and has 6.7-million people living in it, all of which contribute in some measure to the phosphates and nitrates that are polluting the lake and providing nutrients for the annual growth of algae blooms threatening to choke the largest body of water on the prairies.
“Lake Winnipeg has been identified internationally as one of the world’s great freshwater disasters,” said Bib Sanford, chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the UN Water for Life Decade, “just as many scientists predicted.
“Despite the efforts and good intentions of concerned Manitobans, Canada’s international environmental reputation has been downgraded to below that of a developing nation.”
Greenish masses of algae blooms are nothing new to the South Basin of Lake Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Tribune on August 4, 1939, reported beaches along the lake were plagued by algae, “a water plant of the lowest division of the vegetable world ...” According to the newspaper, algae was an annual complaint. But two years earlier, “when water levels were low, it became so bad that water in some places was unfit for bathing.”
But now, the plagues of algae are becoming more frequent and massive. Satellite photographs of the lake during the summer show blooms covering the entire expanse of the North Basin, an uncommon occurrence in previous decades.
The provincial government has in recent summers issued warnings that the water at Grand Beach, Victoria Beach, as well as other beaches along the east side of Lake Winnipeg, where the algae has literally been as thick as “pea soup,” present a grave health hazard under certain conditions to people and animals.
Scientists, such as Al Kristofferson, the managing director of the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium, are reporting that water in the south basin of the lake has become clearer over the years, which has contributed to intense algae bloom outbreaks. Water in the south basin is normally murky and thus less prone to algae growth when compared to the normally clear and deeper water of the north basin. The south basin’s clearing water, when combined with phosphate sources such as municipal sewage, and industrial chemicals and farm animal waste, has now made it more susceptible to algae blooms.
Clearer water means more sunlight can penetrate the lake surface. Since algae is a plant, it requires sunlight to proliferate, and combined with the high nutrient content of the water, it is doing just that. Algae uses photosynthesis to convert inorganic matter, such as phosphates, into organic matter.
While certain types of algae are naturally occurring, including toxic blue-green algae, the increase in sunlight penetration as well as higher nutrient levels, allows blooms to proliferate and pose another threat to the lake. Decaying algae consumes oxygen, which is essential to maintaining commercially-viable native fish populations such as pickerel and whitefish, as well as other fish species and invertebrates. It was decaying algae which nearly killed Lake Erie. Only strong intervention prevented the complete collapse of the lake’s ecosystem.
The fact that the lake was approaching the point of no-return was noted as early as the 1970s. “In a very real sense, the industries, farms and urban centres in the Lake Winnipeg drainage basin are utilizing Lake Winnipeg as a receiving pond for their wastes and by-products,” warned a Canada-Manitoba task force which reported its findings to former Manitoba Premier Ed Schreyer’s cabinet. “It is extremely important that activities in the drainage basin be managed so as not to jeopardize other uses of the lake.”
“Lake Winnipeg is increasingly threatened by activities that destroy natural habitats,” said Alex Salki, the chair of the
Science Advisory Council to the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, in the Global Nature Fund release. Manitoba needs to implement science-based land and water management strategies. And introduce mechanisms that guide stakeholder responsibilities so that Lake Winnipeg can recover.”
It’s not just chemical nutrients that threaten the health of the lake, but the draining of wetlands, which are termed the lungs of the lake. In their natural state, wetlands contain plants, such as cattails, that capture and contain deadly chemicals before they enter the lake.
The province has taken some preventative measures by legislating new rules for farm animal waste, forcing Winnipeg to upgrade its sewage treatment system, and limiting septic field use, but the evidence provided by the recent outbreaks shows these measures have not been sufficient.
In addition, what role is the regulation of the lake by Manitoba Hydro playing in the decrease in the lake’s health? This is something that requires a definitive scientific investigation.
More aggressive measures are needed to further limit chemical and waste run-off into the lake. To do otherwise can only lead to one outcome — the death of an extremely valuable asset to our province. As it is, the lake probably does merit the dubious distinction of being the Threatened Lake of the Year, 2013.