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This article was published 19/5/2018 (1245 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Jamie Kapusta has been spending summers at the beach her entire life, but she worries that what’s growing in Lake Winnipeg may keep her family out of the water not only during hot and sunny days this year, but out of the water for good in the future.
Kapusta and her husband recently bought the Beaconia Beach cottage her grandparents built in the 1970s. It is where she has always spent summers hanging out with family and friends while going to the nearby beach at Balsam Bay, which sits on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
"I grew up at the lake, I grew up on the beach," Kapusta, 34, said.
Although Kapusta said she is excited to take over ownership of the cottage and keep the family using it for many more years, she also worries that one day the nearby beach may not be a place where cottagers can swim because of blue-green algae blooms.
Kapusta has seen the Lake Winnipeg blooms her whole life, but the problem has intensified in the last decade.
"At some points in the summer last year, it would be a really hot day and you were sitting on the beach, and you couldn’t even go in the water because it was so bad," she said.
At its worst, the lake water turns green, thick, slimy and often smelly.
"We sometimes get boats to come around to clear it out, just so we can just swim for a few minutes," Kapusta said.
The problem is most troublesome in late July and early August.
"It’s sad, because you see some families at the beach and the kids just want to go in, and the parents are literally holding them back," she said.
"That’s not a fun day at the beach, and it’s disheartening because our summers are so short, and then you say, ‘Let’s go to the beach’ and then you can’t even use it."
Along with concerns about how much time her family can spend at the beach, she also wonders if the algae bloom problem on Lake Winnipeg could one day wreak havoc on property values for cottagers.
"Sometimes, I think it’s pretty exciting to own a cabin. But, sometimes I also think, ‘Are we investing all this money into a cabin that won’t even have a beach?’"
Kapusta said she knows blue-green algae blooms are a normal part of the ecosystem in Lake Winnipeg, but she also realizes it is the amount of phosphorus flowing into Lake Winnipeg year after year that is leading to an excess.
She said many Manitobans do what they can to help with the problem, including using phosphorus-free products. But she also believes they can only do so much, and it’s up to governments to create policies that will address the problem.
Nora Casson, an assistant professor in the geography department at the University of Winnipeg, has been studying the blooms.
"A number of different human activities is what is creating this excess of phosphorous," Casson said. "And Lake Winnipeg, in a lot of ways, is like the very bottom of a large drain, because you have a massive area that all drains into Lake Winnipeg starting in the Rockies and moving across the whole Prairies and stretching down into the states as well."
Casson said the phosphorus comes from fertilizer used both on residential and agricultural land, sewage and livestock manure. Rain and melting snow carry the phosphorus into waterways.
The loss of natural wetlands, which were prominent across the Prairies centuries ago, adds to the problem because they held phosphorus back from getting into waterways, Casson said.
She said there are a number of problems that occur when the algae levels are too high, including the depletion of oxygen levels in the lake.
"So that’s bad for everything else that needs oxygen in the lake, including the fish," Casson said.
She said the algae can also carry dangerous toxins, and it becomes a nuisance for those trying to use the beach.
"It’s esthetically bad and, at it’s worst, it means that you can’t swim, and that’s what a lot of Manitobans like to do, we like to swim at the lake," Casson said.
She added the problem has no easy solutions; if we do nothing, the problem will likely get worse.
"You need to reduce the amount of phosphorus that’s going into the lake, so it’s simple. If you don’t reduce the phosphorus, the problem will not go away.
"It’s a very big and very complicated problem, but what we don’t want to do is just throw our hands in the air and say there’s nothing we can do about it."
The Lake Winnipeg Foundation (LWF) is a not-for-profit organization that works to raise awareness about, and seek solutions for, the issues threatening the health of Lake Winnipeg.
LWF executive-director Alexis Kanu said the group also pushes for various levels of government to create policies that could ultimately improve the lake’s health, including finding ways to save and create more wetlands, and ways to decrease the amount of phosphorus draining into the lake.
"We want residents to always be respecting the lake, and be doing what they can to help. But it’s bigger than that, because what we really need is for things to change on a systematic level," Kanu said.
LWF is creating a network of "citizen scientists" who are working to find out where phosphorus levels are highest in the Lake Winnipeg watershed and where the most action needs to be taken, Kanu said.
"They are taking data and pinpointing where the main sources of phosphorus are coming from, because Lake Winnipeg is massive — and if we can find phosphorus hot spots, that’s a way to direct our resources and our energy to these areas," Kanu said.
"It really is a needle-in-the-haystack problem, where the lake is massive and its watershed is 40 times larger, so we need to know where the phosphorus is coming from. So, instead of just sprinkling money across the lake, let’s be strategic and targeted."
LWF was created in 2005 because so many citizens came forward with concerns.
"We started as a grassroots group of advocates, because we believe it’s up to all of us to work towards fixing the problems," Kanu said. "We all need to stand up and fight for the health of Lake Winnipeg."
Kapusta is looking forward to enjoying the cottage and the beach, but also realizes it’s another summer of worrying about the blue-green algae blooms that could keep her and others out of the water.
"Something needs to change," she said. "Human activity is what caused this problem, so now we need human activity to fix the problem."