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.”
As a child growing up in Gimli, I frequently encountered algae blooms, which we termed “pea soup.” In some years, it was so thick that it seemed to spread to the horizon.
Yet, the presence of “pea soup” never deterred my friends and I from taking a dip in the lake. To keep the algae at bay, all we did was stroke our arms in front of us to clear a momentary path. Although as we swam forward, the algae would reform into a unified mass behind our shoulders, coating our backs with the slime. Despite our diligence in avoiding the algae, we invariably swallowed litres of the green stuff. As I recall, the algae didn’t taste anything like the “pea soup” we enjoyed at lunch time, but was thoroughly awful.
When we eventually emerged from the water, stomachs churning in protest to the unwelcome ingestions, the algae clung ubiquitously to every body part, as well as our swimming trunks, and tinted our hair with a green hue that we liked to joke made us into Martians.
The complaint we received from our mothers was that the adhering algae gave off a foul odour — as children celebrating the rituals of summer, we didn’t notice the stench — and we were ordered in no uncertain terms to carefully wash the offending “pea soup” from our bodies before we could come into the house.
When my mother finally observed my algae-tainted bathing suit, another complaint arose. “Do you expect me to wash that foul thing with the other clothes!” she would shout in disgust.
Yet, as every mother does, she relented, allowing me to come inside the house, but only after warning me to take my swimming trunks off outside. With a bath towel covering my lower region, I would meekly comply, while she carried the offending item inside between pinched fingers.
The next day, the entire process was repeated. After all, the lake was our summertime recreation centre which we enjoyed day after day regardless of the presence of the foul algae.
It was an era when few concerns were expressed about exposure to toxic substances such as algae. We didn’t know any better, and other than the unearthly smell we acquired from swimming in the “pea soup,” neither did our parents.
Today, parents know better — blue-green algae is a toxic soup which shouldn’t be swallowed in any quantity under any circumstance. People visiting beaches along the east side of the lake this summer are greeted by the same phenomena I encountered as a youth, but they are staying away from the water.
The provincial government has 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,” does in fact present a health hazard under certain conditions.
According to a government press release, levels of the algae toxin, microcystin-LR, have been below the province’s recreational water quality guideline, and as such the south basin is still safe for swimming.
“Warm and calm weather,” according to the release, “coupled with relatively high nutrient loads provide ideal conditions for blue-green algae to develop.
“Bathers are reminded to avoid swimming in water where severe algae blooms are visible and to prevent pets from drinking water along the shoreline.”
Scientists, such as Al Kristofferson, the managing director of the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium, are reporting that water in the 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. In recent years, satellite photos have shown algae blooms stretching from shore to shore in 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 penetratation 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.”
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. To keep people from having to sweep the “pea soup” aside when swimming, 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.