Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lake Winnipeg cleanup plan bolstered

Province unveils blueprint to manage swamps, seasonal wetlands

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Victoria Beach on Lake Winnipeg is awash in blue-green algae. New measures aim to cut farm-field runoff in order to reduce algae.

LAURIE BAILEY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Victoria Beach on Lake Winnipeg is awash in blue-green algae. New measures aim to cut farm-field runoff in order to reduce algae. Photo Store

The Selinger government's proposed plan to clean up Lake Winnipeg and its summer algae blooms, and to store water for a possible drought, includes tapping into revenue raised by last year's increase to the PST.

The government says it will use a portion of the $320 million set aside from its $5.5-billion infrastructure-renewal plan to deal with excess water from spring flooding and rainstorms.

It will also protect swamps and seasonal wetlands that act as natural filters for water going into Lake Winnipeg.

"This is part of our core infrastructure strategy," Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton said.

The intent of both measures is to reduce the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that run off farm fields and enter the lake.

The nutrients contribute to the growth of large blue-green algae blooms that have increased 300 to 500 per cent on Lake Winnipeg in the past century.

When algae dies, it consumes oxygen aquatic life, such as fish, need to survive -- a condition called eutrophication.

Flooding and climate change are partly to blame, but so is the use of fertilizer, poor waste-water treatment, land clearing and deforestation.

On Wednesday, Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh added surface-water management to the list.

"The solutions to problems on the lake are found on the land," Mackintosh said in outlining the strategy to deal with excess surface water and land drainage in Manitoba's portion of the lake's 953,000-square-kilometre watershed.

Mackintosh said the blueprint is a consultation document. The goal is to finalize it and create regulations during the next year.

(It is posted online on the Conservation and Water Stewardship web page.)

The release of the strategy comes about two weeks after Manitoba's senior MP, Shelly Glover, said 16 Lake Winnipeg research projects will get nearly $1 million in federal funding this year, adding to the almost $5 million previously earmarked by Ottawa for the Lake Winnipeg Basin Stewardship Fund and 59 projects underway throughout the lake's drainage basin.

Groups working to clean up the lake said the strategy is a positive step.

"It's extending protection beyond what's been protected in the past," Alexis Kanu of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation said.

The Opposition Conservatives said the strategy is weak.

Tory critic Shannon Martin said the government has been too slow to come up with a surface-water management plan given problems facing Lake Winnipeg are well-established.

"Every few years, they seem to announce a five-year plan," Martin said. "We haven't seen a lot of actual results. But this is the same government that enshrined its Kyoto (greenhouse-gas emission reduction) targets in law. We saw what happened there when they didn't meet them."

Mackintosh said about 75 per cent of original wetlands in Manitoba have been drained since industrial development began on the Prairies, much of that in areas such as the Red River basin.

He said the intent of the strategy is to protect permanent and semi-permanent wetlands and move to protect seasonal wetlands, roughly 111,000 hectares in the province that typically dry up in summer.

To do that, Mackintosh said the province will work with farmers to reduce the red tape for minor drainage applications, promote on-farm water-retention projects to store water and crack down on illegal drainage projects through increased fines.

"This is not a no-loss-of-wetlands policy," Mackintosh said.

"It's not a moratorium on wetland drainage. Instead, it's a flexible, no-net-loss-of-wetlands benefits policy.

"We're not saying you can't drain. But if you absolutely must, and there's no alternative to draining, you have to make up for the loss of the benefits to the environment by at least three to one, and we'll have a discussion as to what the compensation ratio should be."

That could include the owner adding new wetlands to a property or by the purchase of "wetland credits" through the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp. and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

All of that, he said, must be worked out.

He added it's vital for the province to be seen to be addressing the problems on Lake Winnipeg to get other jurisdictions in the drainage basin -- such as Saskatchewan and North Dakota -- to buy into the Lake Friendly Accord.

The goal of the accord is to reduce the nutrient loading on Lake Winnipeg by 50 per cent, although no timeline has been set.

Other jurisdictions with a stake in the matter include Ontario, Alberta, Minnesota and South Dakota.

The accord also calls for the 40 groups working to fix the lake to work more closely together.

 

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2014 A8

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