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Losing the lake

David Suzuki narrates CBC documentary on the failing health of Manitoba's freshwater jewel and its global implications

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As TV-documentary titles go, it doesn't get much more direct, urgent and plaintive than this: Save My Lake.

That's the strongly worded sentiment contained in Sunday's special-edition broadcast of CBC's The Nature of Things with David Suzuki (7 p.m. on CBC), and the body of water so desperately in need of salvation is pretty close to home: Lake Winnipeg.

It is, says filmmaker Paul Kemp, a very local story with huge global implications.

"Lake Winnipeg is a huge example of what is happening to lakes all over the world," says Kemp, co-director and executive producer of the film for Toronto-based Stornoway Productions. "This is happening to any place where you've got sewage effluent or fertilizer or agricultural runoff working its way through the water system. It's a universal issue, and it has to be dealt with.

"People have begun to wake up to the idea that the oceans are threatened, but maybe it's time to start thinking about the fresh water and the watersheds of our country, too."

Kemp, who was born in Winnipeg but currently resides in Toronto, said the inspiration for doing a documentary examination of Lake Winnipeg's plight came from a startling event that arose while engaged in the most mundane of cottage-country activities.

"A couple of years ago, I was walking with my son along one of the beaches at Victoria Beach, and he went into the water and came out covered, up to his neck, in green goop," he said. "It was just caked on. I thought, 'We're not going in there any more,' and made myself a promise that I was going to look into it.

"We've always had a cottage; I've been going to that neck of the woods -- either Victoria Beach or Albert Beach -- for coming up on 40 years of my life, and I'm 41 now. I remember, when I was growing up, canoeing in that water, even drinking the water, and never thinking too much about the water quality."

After doing a bit of research and consulting with a couple of scientists to try to understand the reasons for his green-slime scare, Kemp felt there was enough to the story to justify pitching it to the public broadcaster. He admits he was a bit surprised by the swift and certain level of support the story received.

Save My Lake couldn't come at a better time for folks who live and work on Lake Winnipeg, including Dr. Al Kristofferson, the Gimli-raised scientist who heads the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium.

"Using satellite imagery, we've been able to go back a couple of decades, and in the last decade, we've seen consistent larger (algae) blooms, in some cases covering the entire north basin of the lake," said Kristofferson. "It has become very evident to all of us, and it's been over the last 15 or 20 years that it has become very noticeable."

In shooting Save My Lake last summer, Kemp and his film crew accompanied Kristofferson on one of their research trips around the lake, during which they collected water samples and core specimens from the lake's bottom. The evidence they found suggests that Lake Winnipeg's downward spiral may have begun much earlier than most observers believe.

"One way you can actually go back in time is to take a core sample of the sediment of the lake," he explained. "You take a cylinder and drive it down into the sediment, and the farther down you go, the farther back in time you go. There's a core that was taken in the north basin in 1994, and that core, if you examine it carefully, indicates that this problem isn't something that just happened in the last 20 years. This is something that has been building for the last 50 years."

To say the least, working on this film was an eye-opening experience for Kemp. He said the most interesting -- and, from an environmental perspective, alarming -- aspect of his Lake Winnipeg education has been learning the massive scope of the land mass that empties into the lake.

"I didn't realize how big the watershed of Lake Winnipeg is," he said. "I didn't realize that if you flush your toilet in Calgary or Banff, it's eventually going to work its way to Lake Winnipeg. Lake Winnipeg is the end of the pipe for some massive rivers -- even the Bow River and the South Saskatchewan River make their way to the lake.

"I knew about the Red and the Assiniboine and the Winnipeg River, because I grew up there, but I guess I didn't realize that whatever flows off of every farm in Western Canada ends up working its way to the lake.... (The watershed) actually goes through four provinces and four states."

As alarming as the information in Save My Lake seems, both Kemp and Kristofferson agree that there is reason for optimism. The issue has been identified; action is being taken; and, as the success of efforts to rehabilitate Lake Erie a couple of decades ago has shown, Lake Winnipeg's current algae-bloom crisis needs to be viewed as a solvable problem.

"I hope we start to recognize that we're all part of the problem, and we can all be part of the solution," said Kemp. "It sounds like a cliché, but the fact is that everything we do -- from the soap we use to the fertilizer that goes on our farmland to where our sewage goes -- has to be looked at.... It's a very difficult issue, because there are so many 'point sources' of pollution contributing to the problem."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2011 G1

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