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LAKE WINNIPEG: SAVING CANADA'S 2ND LARGEST WATERSHED
By Suzanne Forcese
More than 23,000 permanent residents live in 30 communities, including 11 First Nations, along the shores of Lake Winnipeg. During the summer months the population is in the 10's of thousands made up primarily of cottagers in the South Basin.
As well as being the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world and the 3rd largest hydroelectric reservoir in the world, Lake Winnipeg is the 2nd largest watershed in Canada.
Loosely defined, all land that drains into the same location or body of water is a watershed. Explorer/geographer John Wesley Powell defined a watershed as "a bounded hydrological system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course." While most people think only of rivers, lakes and wetlands being part of their watershed, in actuality any land - farm, park, forest, a parking lot and even the soil we build our homes, factories and businesses on - all contribute to a funnel-like drainage system into soil, ground water, creeks, streams, larger rivers, lakes and eventually the ocean. Everyone in the world lives in a watershed. Watersheds know no political borders. Our environment, economy, and society all depend on a healthy watershed.
"Everything is connected. Water connects us all. It is our shared responsibility. If you live in a watershed you are contributing to it, either as part of the problem of part of the solution," Gordon Goldsborough, PhD (aquatic ecology) and Member of the International Society of Limnology and the Society of Wetland Scientists, told Water Today.
Wetlands, a vital component of healthy watersheds are vibrant living ecosystems that provide valuable ecological services such as reducing flood and drought risks, and phosphorous filtration which controls harmful algal blooms. By storing carbon they also mitigate the effects of climate change.
"The problem is," Dr. Goldsborough states, "as a society we are overloading the wetlands. The City of Winnipeg is a major contributor as it flushes its wastewater into the Red River."
Dr. Paul M. Cooley, Environmental Scientist and Founder of NextGen Environmental Research, says "the pendulum of Science is swinging to the watershed. Scientific papers that have been shelved for the past 15 years are now coming back home to the people. We can't wait for government to fix this. We have to take responsibility."
The Lake Winnipeg Foundation, an environmental non-governmental organization advocating for change and coordinating action to improve the health of Lake Winnipeg, has stated on the Foundation's website "it (Winnipeg) remains the fourth largest phosphorous polluter amongst all wastewater treatment facilities in Canada".
Dr. Goldsborough emphasizes, "We all like to point fingers. But it is all of us. If you are flushing a toilet -- and we all are -- you are contributing to the overload." The Red River is the single largest source of the problem of phosphorous and nitrogen levels which makes their way into Lake Winnipeg feeding the algal blooms.
Putting it into perspective. In 1870, the year Manitoba joined Confederation, The Wolseley Expedition (a journey from lake of the Woods in Ontario to Lake Winnipeg to confront Louis Riel) Colonel Huyshe wrote in his diary about the algae on both The Lake of the Woods and Lake Winnipeg. "Algal blooms have always been here. In fact, they are everywhere in the world. The issue is they have become worse due to our irresponsibility. We have to bring a reduction to phosphorous and nitrogen to reasonable levels." Goldsborough added.
Dr. Goldsborough has a mantra. "Keep water far away from the Lake."
Snow melts and spring flooding are big factors in transporting high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen into the lake. "If we could find a way to moderate the flow in spring and somehow hold the water for drought conditions we could create major change."
Dr. Cooley says the technology already exists. "There are companies right now dying to promote at a municipal level the benefits of natural infrastructure products. It is possible to build structures that mimic natural wetlands to retain water and harvest the excessive phosphorous that would contribute to the algal blooms. These structures also provide climate resiliency by ameliorating the extremes of flood and drought. "Insurance companies are even starting to pay attention to this."
A major change is indeed necessary. Goldsborough figures it will take at least a generation. Farmers, as an example, do not see an immediate impact of their indiscriminate use of fertilizers and careless use of manure so they continue their practices mainly because they are driven to meet an increased global demand for food production. "They do not understand the long-term consequences." But the sad reality is the agricultural sector is today's primary cause of wetland drainage. Approximately 75% of Manitoba's original wetlands have been drained since original development began in the Prairies. An estimated 6 hectares of wetlands is being lost in south-western Manitoba every day. Farmers play a pivotal role in environmental stewardship. Their choices matter.
As Goldsborough stated, "we are either part of the problem or part of the solution"
It is reassuring to know that Manitoba is coming together to educate the public. For example, The Fort Whyte Centre offers many programs for youth and families to participate in environmental education, outdoor recreation and social enterprise programs.
The Lake Winnipeg Foundation has also developed an Eight Step Lake Winnipeg Health Plan which seeks enforceable protection of remaining wetlands. LWF will develop, support and fund solutions for water management.
Dr. Cooley has also developed The BloomFinder Project to teach the average person how the lake behaves so they can learn to adapt. The project uses remote sensing for the public to see what is happening in real time.
Education is needed. A major change in behavior is mandatory. "the media and non-profit groups" are the strongest voices according to Goldsborough, "We can't rely on governments."
Those strong voices are now being heard. Steve Strang, Director of The Red River Basin Commission, stated it most eloquently. "What is amazing is the partnership that is developing. Groups that used to compete are now coming together as One to serve the greatest good. We are here to make a difference."
Dr. Cooley echoed those words as he described his forward course with The BloomFinder Project. "We need to pull together the groups that don't normally speak to each other. The First Nations can give us valuable input. All the groups can. We have a common thread." Cooley is planning a Water Summit in Winnipeg where a collective momentum can take our water issues to the next level.
Lake Winnipeg's vast watershed encompasses 4 Canadian provinces, 4 American states and multiple First Nations. Almost one million kilometres in size it is home to more than 7 million people.
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