Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Another dying lake?

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Missing the forest for the trees. Fiddling while Rome burns. Pick your metaphor. Manitoba's New Democrats and the Opposition Tories are so focused on draining Lake Manitoba in flood years, the bigger issues seem to have eluded them.

The politicians are arguing over whether new infrastructure to drain the lake can be completed in three years or seven years. After two major floods in three years, there is a legitimate sense of urgency for measures that can reduce the devastating effects of high water on the people who live and work around the world's 33rd-largest freshwater lake.

Meanwhile, an ecological crisis hangs over the lake, which is in danger of suffocating because of phosphorous overload.

It's the same problem affecting Lake Winnipeg, with one important difference. The poisoning of Lake Manitoba has been caused by the Manitoba government. Every time it uses the Portage Diversion to prevent downstream flooding on the Assiniboine River, tons of phosphorous from farmers' fields and other sources are dumped into the lake.

The chemical causes the growth of blue-green algae that feeds on oxygen. Left unchecked, it will kill a lake. A recent study of flooding along the Assiniboine said that in 2011, more than 60 per cent of Lake Manitoba's total phosphorus was transported by the Portage Diversion. The study concluded water quality in the south basin has been "significantly affected" by the diversion.

Ecologist Scott Forbes has documented in the Free Press the various perils facing Lake Manitoba because of the short-sighted actions of governments, past and present. He said if the Portage Diversion were proposed today, it would not pass an environmental review.

Among other things, Mr. Forbes decried the hypocrisy of a province that opposed a water diversion project in North Dakota because it would cause a small amount of biota from a different watershed to mix with the Lake Winnipeg basin.

Yet that's similar to what the Portage Diversion does, only on a more massive scale. The Upper Assiniboine watershed normally wouldn't deposit any water into Lake Manitoba, except for a trickle of overland flooding in the worst flood years. Although waters from the Assiniboine and Lake Manitoba both eventually drain into Hudson Bay, the province has dramatically altered the natural flow of the Assiniboine in flood years.

The long-term consequences and cumulative effects of this kind of Frankenstein engineering are unknown.

Mr. Forbes and others have said the province should dramatically limit use of the Portage Diversion to times when it is unavoidable.

In co-operation with Saskatchewan, the government should instead build a super-retention pond to store the Assiniboine's water until it can be released safely. Dikes along the river downstream should also be improved. In fact, the deterioration of these bulwarks has forced the province to divert even more water through the diversion, which has been operated 37 times in its 44-year history.

The province also needs to be more aggressive in finding ways to keep water on the land and restore wetlands, which hold back floodwaters and soak up toxic chemicals.

It's possible the river won't experience flooding for a long time, but that's what everyone thought following the 2011 flood. It may be what people are thinking this year.

The old assumptions about flood risks and frequencies, however, have to be discarded. In an era of climate uncertainty, the province needs a flood-control plan that doesn't include poisoning Lake Manitoba with tons of phosphorous.

More outlets from the lake are necessary, but they do not address the fundamental challenges along the Assiniboine. The defence of Winnipeg is still the prime mandate of flood control in southern Manitoba. Alternatives are available, however, to mitigate the effects of flooding on Lake Manitoba and the devastating impacts on residents, farmers, First Nations and the natural environment.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 5, 2014 A8

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