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'The lake is not dead'

... and foundation is working hard to keep it that way

Posted: 06/29/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Lake Winnipeg Foundation executives Alex Salki (from left, on left stairs), Karin Boyd, Alexis Knispel Kanu and Vicki Burns with the rest of the board.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Lake Winnipeg Foundation executives Alex Salki (from left, on left stairs), Karin Boyd, Alexis Knispel Kanu and Vicki Burns with the rest of the board. Photo Store

Lake Winnipeg is the 11th-largest lake in the world, but it is an inland ocean that also has huge problems.

It now has the title of most threatened lake in the world. Just about every summer, thick blooms of blue-green algae scuttle the plans of swimmers and make fishing difficult.

The Lake Winnipeg Foundation is trying to help reverse that trend.

The mission of the LWF, an independent, non-profit, charitable environmental organization, is simple: It wants to "identify and support solutions that restore and protect the health of Lake Winnipeg and its watershed through research, public education, stewardship and collaboration."

The lake is one of the province's important economic drivers. Besides generating $20 million through the fishery, it also creates $100 million in revenue through tourism. And, because of Manitoba Hydro dams in the north, the lake is the third-largest reservoir in the world for electrical production, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

"We want to ultimately lead to improvement to the health and water of Lake Winnipeg," Karin Boyd, the president of the LWF, said recently.

"We don't point fingers. We all have to take responsibility to clean it up."

Alexis Knispel Kanu, the LWF's executive director, said the organization works on a collaborative basis with other groups that try to reduce nutrient flow into the lake.

"It's an organization that recognizes the solution to addressing the issues of the lake lies within its vast and diverse watershed," she said.

"It is actually what we do across the landscape of the watershed that really affects the health of the lake."

The problems on the lake have been building up for decades, but the LWF itself is not an old organization. It was incorporated in 2005.

In just under a decade, the LWF has grown to have a full-time executive director, summer students and an office.

Rick Gamble, the mayor of the lakeside community of Dunnottar, located south of Winnipeg Beach, is the founding father of the LWF.

Gamble saw that the Namao, the former Canada Coast Guard ship-turned lake research vessel, needed funding to keep operating, so he invited 20 like-minded residents in his community to a meeting to see if they could help.

"At our second meeting, half of them came back and that was the beginning of the board of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation," Gamble said.

"The foundation is doing a tremendous job. But I think it will take a long time to fix the lake. You need a lot of money to do a lot of things.

"The way we did things in the past doesn't work today."

One problem the LWF faces is it's not just what goes into the lake, but where it comes from.

Lake Winnipeg's watershed is immense. It goes from Banff in the west, to South Dakota in the south, to just shy of Lake Superior to the east and in those one million square kilometres are many people, sewage systems, factories and farms.

Earlier this year, the Global Nature Fund gave Lake Winnipeg the dubious honour of naming it Threatened Lake of 2013, meaning it is considered the most threatened lake in the world.

Currently, the LWF is pushing a program called Keeping Water on the Land to encourage farmers to allow spring runoff to stay on their fields and then during drought to use that water to irrigate their lands.

The benefit for the lake? It helps keep nutrients from getting into the lake that encourage the growth of blue-green algae.

"It's not an intractable problem," Knispel Kanu said.

"It really just means what we have to do is work together in a really co-ordinated fashion to address all the things that we are doing across the landscape of the watershed, whether we are in the city or in the rural landscape."

Vicki Burns, the LWF's outreach co-ordinator, said "there's a huge degree of public awareness and education to be done."

"It is possible to turn things around on Lake Winnipeg. The lake is not dead. It is being threatened by too much blue-green algae. We need to create a strong political push.

"You will see a turning of the corner. There's so many people in Manitoba who care about the lake."

Boyd and Burns said there are a lot of things people can do to help the lake, starting with residents right on the lake.

"They should maintain good vegetation, which sets out good roots protecting the shore," Boyd said.

"I think we have persuaded people in Victoria Beach not to cut down the vegetation, but if you want to see the lake, to bring a chair down to the lake."

"A lot of people just don't understand," Burns said.

"We used to wonder why my dad didn't cut down a bunch of trees in front of our cottage, but now we know if you leave the natural vegetation, you'll have less erosion."

Boyd said it would also help the shoreline if there were the same rules all around the lake. Currently, they range from only lakefront cottage owners being able to use the reserve in front of them in provincial parks to ATVs not allowed on beaches in some areas, while allowed in others.

"There needs to be some central authority that looks after the shoreline," she said.

Boyd said the problems on the lake are so large she can't envision the LWF being able to disband any time soon.

"We just need to keep working together and educating and working on good solid science," she said.

"Cleaning Lake Winnipeg is going to be a long process. It took a long time to get where we are and it will take just as long to clean it up."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 B6

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