Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nitrogen still water villain

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Pity David Schindler, a man of science who can't see why policy-makers and politicians on Broadway can't separate good from bad science.Prof. Schindler, an esteemed ecological scientist with a string of accolades and awards, was invited by Mayor Sam Katz to city hall. There, for an audience largely ascribing to his Lake Winnipeg doctrine, he once again interpreted his charts and graphs and decoded a bewildering array of data and dots. The message: If you cut the phosphorus flowing to the lake, you cut the growth of blue-green algae that is sucking up all the oxygen, threatening other plant and fish life.

Schindler's conclusion is backed by decades of science. Yet it is akin to heresy in the offices on Broadway. The NDP government has thumbed its nose at Schindler -- and 60-plus other researchers. It is forcing the city to cut nitrogen, along with phosphorus and ammonia, in the treated wastewater it dumps into the Red River.

In that city hall audience sat the man who advised the province to sign Winnipeg up for the extra $350 million in capital to go after nitrogen (and $9 million, annually, to maintain that system).

Calculate the cost of debt servicing, and you see why Katz brought in a scientific big gun Tuesday.

There, amid the convinced and converted, was Terry Sargeant, head of the province's Clean Environment Commission. But Sargeant was anything but chagrined.

Despite the heft of the ELA evidence, which includes the fact it has been used around the world to bring precious lakes back to life, the commission told the conservation minister in 2003 and again last year that nitrogen is the culprit causing Lake Winnipeg to choke up with blue-green algae.

On Tuesday, Sargeant stuck to his story. Sort of.

He said other researchers have opposing views.

The province gave them undeserving weight.

Yet Terry Sargeant also offered a small concession, one that could kick the stuffing out of his cut-nitrogen rationale, and shine some light on the fallacy of the CEC's recommendation.

The CEC, he said, was considering the city's latest bid to go only halfway on the provincial order for upgrades at the North End plant. At a meeting earlier this month, officials from the water and waste department showed the CEC that past upgrades at its North End wastewater treatment plant have already cut the ammonia that gets discharged into the Red River. The levels last year met those in the provincial licence limits set for 2014.

How is that significant? The CEC insisted that forcing the city to cut its nitrogen would be a fraction of the upgrading cost. Most of the bill, it said, would be spent to cut ammonia, a form of nitrogen toxic to fish. Based on that faulty balance-sheet calculus, the panel essentially said what the heck, go all the way, take the last step and "denitrify" the effluent.

The city has always said nitrogen is the expensive part of the upgrade. With ammonia taken care of now, going after nitrogen would cost $350 million; phosphorus, $50 million.

Unbowed by the dots, data, graphs and spreadsheets collected over decades of dozens of scientists' water-logged worked, the CEC somehow has acquired a glimmer of reason?

More like it has seen a renewed political interest in a new fix for Winnipeg's wastewater problem.

A government, so easily bent to the pressure of environmental lobbyists, so fearful of not being seen as green enough, was prepared in 2003 to chalk up the waste of a grossly expensive exercise as simply the cost of staying in power. That's abundantly obvious when you consider that the science shows that cutting nitrogen can actually promote the growth of pernicious blue-green algae.

What profit, then, in an about-turn?

Well, there are two elections on the horizon. One for city hall this year, and Mayor Sam could use a victory. The other, for Broadway, in 2011. Premier Greg Selinger, toiling in the long shadow of Gary Doer, would win brownie points with voters, and maybe shave a few bucks off the province's share of a huge city infrastructure project.

Science won't trump politics. Katz, however, can marry the two and muster Winnipeggers to see the opportunity to keep $350 million from going down the toilet.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2010 A11

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