Ottawa and the province took the first step Monday in the creation of a new authority that would head up the cleanup of Lake Winnipeg and manage water quality throughout its basin -- an area that includes four provinces and two U.S. states.
Manitoba's senior MP, Vic Toews, and the province's Water Stewardship Minister, Christine Melnick, inked an agreement at a windy ceremony at The Forks to put the wheels into motion over the next five years.
"This is the first time we've had an agreement of this nature with the federal government," Melnick said. "They have officially come to the table to say, 'We are a partner in cleaning up not only Lake Winnipeg, but working throughout the basin.'"
But critics say the Harper government is five years late in committing to saving Lake Winnipeg.
They say it should have been signed five years ago when it was first proposed in a Liberal-sponsored report, Restoring the Health of Lake Winnipeg.
"To save Lake Winnipeg, it will take a major federal effort like it for the Great Lakes," report co-author and Liberal candidate Terry Duguid said. "What they've only done is approve small projects that are worthwhile, but really only merely tinkering."
Duguid said the 2005 report also recommended the creation of a Lake Winnipeg Basin Council that would oversee the cleanup throughout the lake's drainage area.
Melnick said Monday's signing is a move towards such a single planning authority.
"This takes us a step closer to the overall co-ordination that we all agree we need," she said.
RM of Victoria Beach Mayor Tom Farrell said the agreement between the two governments comes as Manitoba Hydro's licence to manage the water level on the lake comes up for renewal next year.
Many blame shore erosion on the lake because Hydro keeps the lake's level artificially high so it has water to power its northern dams.
"This needs to be reviewed scientifically," he said. "I think it should involve an independent body."
Melnick added the province will focus on scientific research into what ails the lake and how it can be reversed.
What ails it was in plain view this summer where thick green -- sometimes even turquoise -- algae washed up on beaches in the south basin of the lake. The green, smelly goo has become worse over the years as increased nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen are flushed into the lake from farm fields and other sources across Western Canada, Minnesota and North Dakota.
"We're not just talking about a little skim that comes in and is gone the next day," Gimli commercial fisherman Robert Kristjanson said. "We're talking about algae that goes right to the bottom."
Kristjanson said the algae sucks oxygen out of the water and threatens the fishery, and sometimes clogs fishing nets.
While fishing is good now, there's concern it's not sustainable if conditions in the lake are not addressed.
"When you catch the big fish you wonder if there are any little ones," Kristjanson said.
The threat to the lake was known in 1974 when a task force warned about the algae blooms and other problems. However, successive governments did little if anything while cottage developments grew around the lake and use of farm fertilizers and manure spreading flourished. Between 1974 and 2001, the load of nitrogen and phosphorus in Lake Winnipeg grew by more than 50 per cent.
In 2003, the provincial government laid out a six-point action plan for the lake and in 2007 Ottawa committed $18 million towards getting a better idea of the physical, chemical and biological nature of the lake and setting nutrient levels the lake can manage.
Duguid said fixing the lake, the sixth-largest in Canada and 10th largest in the world, would take at least $120 million. Tourism, cottage properties and the fishery are likely worth more than that, he said.
Melnick added the province is still educating Manitobans, and retailers, about the province's 2007 ban on phosphorus in dishwashing detergent and lawn fertilizer.
"We've have found that people are very willing to be compliant," she said. "They're really wanting to be part of the cleanup."