It was an idyllic setting, save for the fact that the lake's entire surface was covered with a thick layer of green slime.
I have a vivid memory of watching a fisherman filleting his catch on the shore. He cut off a fish's head and threw it back into the lake with a long, arching toss that landed with a splutting kind of sound -- the head resting for a moment on the top of the scum before slowly slipping underneath.
It was the kind of gross that sticks with a person, and two decades later, all this talk about the deteriorating health of Lake Winnipeg has got me worried that Manitoba's pride and joy -- the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world -- could soon turn into that scene from my childhood, only on a much larger scale: 25,000 square kilometres of slime surrounded by beaches that nobody wants to use.
Annual blooms of blue-green algae are becoming the norm on Lake Winnipeg's waters and they're flourishing, thanks to a steadily increasing diet of phosphorus -- an innocuous nutrient found in manure (both the human and animal varieties), fertilizers, dishwasher detergents, colas, and somewhat surprisingly, in tap water, to which it is added to prevent pipe corrosion and to reduce lead levels.
In addition to sucking the joy out of an afternoon swim, copious amounts of blue-green algae have the potential to change the chemistry of Lake Winnipeg, which in turn would affect the food supply of its fish and therefore, the types of species that would be able to thrive in its waters -- a concerning possibility for those involved in Manitoba's $30 million commercial fishing industry and for all of us who enjoy fresh, cheap pickerel every summer.
The Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board was set up by the province in 2003 -- tasked with figuring out how to reduce nutrient levels. It has come up with a slew of recommendations to get us there, provided we're willing to make some individual changes, adapt some of our agricultural practices and of course, pony up some cash. What's still unclear, however, is what kind of progress we've made and if our actions have had any measurable effect.
Then again, in many respects, we're still gathering information. The province recently announced $965,000 in financial support for new and ongoing scientific research so that, hopefully, we'll soon know what exactly is happening out there and how best to attack the problem.
Lake Winnipeg's health is one of those complex, multi-faceted environmental challenges that in many ways, reminds me of climate change: a problem that's been brewing for decades -- one that's still relatively easy to ignore (especially for us urbanites) and one that, when you get right down to it, is everybody's fault.
The area that drains into Lake Winnipeg -- its watershed -- is huge. It stretches south into two states, and west all the way to Alberta. Over six million people live within it -- a fact that makes the blame game that much more complicated to play.
Like with climate change, it's easy for us regular folks to get confused by the science, led astray by incomplete media reports, or just plain overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the problem. We can't all be David Suzuki.
Still, something has to be done. I'd like the Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board to update us on which recommendations have been implemented. I'd like all levels of government to listen to our scientists and enforce best practices in a way that won't bankrupt our province's already beleaguered farmers. I'd like the City of Winnipeg to finish upgrading our sewage treatment plants and to stop lacing our water with phosphorus.
And I'd really like my eight-year-old niece's memories of Lake Winnipeg to stay happy ones.
Marlo Campbell is a writer with Uptown Magazine. Her column appears bi-weekly on Saturday.