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The abuse of Manitoba's lakes

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The proliferation of blue-green algae on Lake Erie has resulted in a recent state of emergency in Ohio due to the toxins in drinking water in Toledo, the state's fourth-largest city. Is this something we should be paying attention to here since blue-green algae is evident in several of our Manitoba lakes?

The answer is yes, absolutely.

The Lake Erie situation should be a red flag to everyone we need to do a much better job of caring for our freshwater supplies, starting with greatly limiting the amount of phosphorus we allow to flow into our lakes from our municipal sewage-treatment plants and from agricultural run-off. Phosphorus is the main ingredient in the growth of blue-green algae. Phosphorus comes primarily from human sewage, animal waste, fertilizers and other run-off from the land.

This summer in Manitoba, we have had another water-related crisis in the flooding that has occurred along the Assiniboine River basin. Many people don't realize water quality and blue-green algae problems in our lakes are inextricably intertwined with the flooding problem. The flooding increases the growth of blue-green algae because it transports even more phosphorus off the land into the waters. Many people are unaware one of the solutions to decrease the flooding is also one of the solutions to decrease the growth of the algae blooms.

The immediate well-publicized plan related to flooding calls for expansion of the outlet of excessive water from Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. Granted, this is one part of the solution, with millions of dollars and years of construction ahead of it. But it is not the whole answer. If we don't pay attention to rehabilitating our land upstream of the Portage diversion by undertaking major wetland restoration, we will continue to see impacts of water flowing off our lands, creating hardship for farmers and communities in its path and carrying huge loads of phosphorus and other pollutants into Lake Manitoba, which is beginning to suffer similar problems with blue-green algae as Lake Winnipeg. The move to expand the outlets from Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin will alleviate some of the flooding problems related to high water levels, but they will do nothing to address the challenges of blue-green algae blooms in Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg. Reported fish kill that occurred on Lake Manitoba last year is an ominous sign the lake is suffering. We need to be cutting down the amount of phosphorus getting into the lake. Rehabilitation of the landscapes before water hits Lake Manitoba needs to be a major part of the solution.

Other flood-ravaged areas in North America have begun this rehabilitation process by starting the restoration of wetlands that have been drained over the past 50 years. The best example is in Louisiana, where hurricane Katrina caused such massive devastation in 2005. Prior to Katrina, scientists had been warning of the urgency to consider restoring wetlands along the Louisiana coast but serious investment was not committed until after Katrina wreaked her massive havoc. Although there was much discussion about raising the levees to give more protection, there has been widespread acceptance they alone cannot do the job. The restoration of lost coastal wetlands with their tremendous ability to slow water down and then release it slowly, decreasing the peak flow of water, is seen as a big part of the answer to long-term protection to New Orleans and other Louisiana communities. The point is, the use of green infrastructure of restored wetlands, in combination with levee work, is the solution.

In Manitoba, we are experiencing significant costs in human suffering, environmental damage and financial burdens. Add to this the possibility of drinking-water contamination and it becomes clear, it's time for us to get serious about planning, budgeting for and implementing rehabilitation of our landscapes to restore the water-holding, sponge-like capacity of the land and to heal the kidney-like filtering of phosphorus and nitrogen that wetlands offer.

Cutting down the amount of phosphorus that is in our lakes is absolutely paramount to protecting the water quality. Restoring our wetlands will cost significant dollars, both in payment to landowners and in the planning and implementation of such work, but if we don't embark on this approach, the costs of crisis management will continue to add up. At the end of the day, it is Manitobans who suffer and Manitobans who pay. I would much prefer to see a chunk of my taxes pay for a long-term solution that will decrease the suffering of those who live in the flood zones while helping our lakes return to a healthier state. It will require a commitment to long-term vision, a serious collaboration with Saskatchewan decision-makers and support from all taxpayers.

Vicki Burns is a director of the Save Lake Winnipeg Project.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2014 A11

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