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Make real waves on lake rescue

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The province last year vowed to cut by half the amount of phosphorus running into Lake Winnipeg. That would make real strides to saving a natural gem and multimillion-dollar resource now imperilled by the growth of toxic blue-green algae. But Premier Greg Selinger, whose government has talked more than acted to restore the lake, did not say when that would happen.

Manitoba only controls about half the phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the Red and the Assiniboine rivers. Saving Lake Winnipeg will need the co-operation of the United States, Ontario and Saskatchewan.

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But, as the non-profit Lake Winnipeg Foundation notes, Manitoba cannot make a moral case that neighbours should take on the expense of that mission without first cleaning up its own act.

To do that, Manitoba needs to know where are the most troublesome sources of nutrients. The city of Winnipeg is the largest source of nitrogen and phosphorus, but its contribution pales compared to the loads from dispersed sources -- agriculture, especially -- most particularly in the Red River Valley. Key to saving Lake Winnipeg is cutting phosphorus, the culprit in the spread of blue-green algae.

Data on how it's running off the land, and in what volumes, are not collected on a reliable basis. The province collects samples from tributaries three times a year, in various seasons. The foundation says data is publicly released only every five years.

University of Manitoba geographer Greg McCullough analyzes provincial data to study the health of the lake. He says the province must sample frequently in spring, when the flow from runoff is highest.

The increased monitoring would better estimate the total load Lake Winnipeg gets annually. The La Salle, Pembina and Seine rivers are known as heavy contributors; they should be targeted first.

This is not new criticism. In 2005, the Lake Winnipeg Implementation Committee told the province its weak monitoring was hobbling efforts to understand how phosphorus was running off the land.

Good monitoring is not cheap. Conservation districts organized around watersheds (not municipal boundaries) could be funded to do the monitoring, most immediately on the three tributaries that could return the bigger bang for the buck.

There is tremendous acrimony among various players -- the City of Winnipeg, farmers, pork producers, lakeside municipalities -- over who's to blame for the slimy sludge that increasingly slops against Lake Winnipeg's shores. Cleaning up the mess will cost everybody, but foot-dragging is more expensive.

Real progress requires knowing where to focus efforts and then measuring the results. Only frequent, well-timed monitoring gives the precision needed to do that. Mr. Selinger should commit to improved monitoring of nutrients, starting with a deadline by which that will happen on the La Salle, Seine and Pembina rivers.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A14

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